Big Tail Elephants: Liang Juhui, Xu Tan, Chen Shaoxiong, and Me

Big Tail Elephant

This discussion was moderated and recorded by Lin Yilin in 1993. The Chinese transcript can be read here. The English translation is by Lina Dann; the footnotes have been provided by Lina Dann, Yu-Chieh Li, and Sarah McFadden.

Big Tail Elephant Group was founded at the end of 1990. It held two large-scale exhibitions in Guangzhou—one in January 1991, and the other in October 1992. In July 1993, Big Tail Elephants held a conference that was limited to the four members of the group, and so I took on the job of moderating the discussion. Our main topics included the characteristics and directions of Big Tail Elephant Group, the group’s cultural background, and the artistic concepts and works of its members.



Lin Yilin: Xu Tan, your artistic style is already fairly mature, and your works are hardly unfamiliar to your peers in China. An artist such as yourself could simply go on following his original path. What convinced you to join Big Tail Elephant Group?

Xu Tan: Although I’m new to the group, I have collaborated with its members for quite some time. I think Big Tail Elephants has a unique trait, one that I believe is found valuable everywhere in the world. In this group, every artist's individual creation is encouraged and supported, and you can feel the liveliness of creativity; it is a place of freedom, such that our collaboration generates a force—a lasting potential. The openness of our working structure is the source of our confidence in the future.

Liang Juhui: Besides what you just mentioned, is there anything else about Big Tail Elephants that appeals to you?

Xu Tan: This group has a mystic sense of cohesion, something that speaks to all of us. Many people have asked what in essence glues us together, and while none of us has come up with a definitive answer, we are all well aware and assured of its existence. The question is open for discussion. People talk about the South [of China], about the mystical currents that infiltrate everyday life, and I believe that it does possess a charisma and an inexplicable . . .

Liang Juhui: It’s been seven years since Lin Yilin, Chen Shaoxiong, and I started working together at the Southern Artists Salon,1 and just as you said, there is a mystic force that brings us all together.

Chen Shaoxiong: What brings us together is what sets us apart from other artists’ groups. For instance, there isn't a core leader in Big Tail Elephants; if any member were to leave the group, Big Tail Elephants would still hold up. It's kind of funny—it pulls us toward union but doesn’t have a core.

Lin Yilin: The core is the name “Big Tail Elephants.”

Xu Tan: This reminds me of Jacques Derrida's idea of a core. He said that a core can't be found within a structure, and it can't be found outside a structure, either. Take an orchestra, for example: who is the core? Some think the conductor is the core; others believe the first violin is the core; nonetheless, no one really is the core—only music serves as the core. From Derrida's descriptions, I got his sense of what a core is, and I think that is exactly the kind of core-structure relationship that we have.

Liang Juhui: In simpler words, it's like magnets in a magnetic field; complete opposites or complete compatibility cannot make a union.

Lin Yilin: Perhaps we can put it another way. “Big Tail Elephants” is a concept wrapped in a term, just like ancient Western philosophers used the term “gods” to explain natural phenomena. It demonstrates a leading concept instead of a particular person.

Chen Shaoxiong: Or instead of a concept leading us, it might be something that goes beyond individuals, a transcendental force that operates behind all this. This transcendental force leads artists to infinite possibilities in terms of thinking and creating art. This is where the energy and spirituality of Big Tail Elephants lie.

Lin Yilin: We’re open to the possibility that a shared ideological ground will eventually form within the Big Tail Elephant Group. Maybe as we spend more and more time collaborating with each other, we’ll naturally share more in common, and eventually it might result in a strong credo for our group. Nevertheless, we’re not actively pursuing that, and we won't take any credo as a self-restraining standard.

Chen Shaoxiong: Speaking for myself, no particular concept precedes my artwork. It’s not like we have a concrete theory of “Big Tail Elephants.” As we go through the process of creation, we adjust our concepts. You could say that the birth of the artwork and the birth of the concept are simultaneous. And I think I speak for all of us.

Xu Tan: Surely each of us is taking our own artistic path, but undeniably, we’re heading in the same direction, which is hard to describe. If you look back at history, artistic creativity is always connected to strong individuals. I hope our group is a rare but peculiar union where several powerful individuals make up a powerful group. Here, each and every one of us can succeed as an influential artist, all the while working together.

Lin Yilin: There’s a trendy topic in the Chinese art world nowadays: the relationship between contemporary Chinese art and international art. This so-called international art follows the paradigm and criteria of contemporary European and American art. This is where the debate comes in. What makes a piece of contemporary Chinese art valuable? Is a work of art that reflects China’s current cultural background worth more? Or is more meaning to be found in a piece that conforms to the ideas of international art? This discrepancy actually paves the way for contemporary Chinese art that is more multifaceted. In fact, it is multifaceted essentially in a different way from international art. When critics consider an artists’ group like Big Tail Elephants, they might tend to see it as a collective guided by international artistic paradigms. Does this mean that the works of Big Tail Elephant Group are free from considerations of or references to the cultural background of contemporary Chinese art?

Xu Tan: This is a very interesting question. I think what makes observing international culture and Chinese culture so much fun and so delightful is the fact that we observe both of them from a certain distance. In Guangdong, things are quite distinct; unlike northerners, who are deeply rooted in the more established territory of Chinese culture, we are always observing traditional culture from a distance.2 As for Western culture, we certainly stand at a great distance from that as well. In the end, we can’t belong to either. There is no culture here—it's a cultural desert. However, I feel most elated when walking in this desert.

Lin Yilin: The only trouble is the lack of water in the desert. But this is why our work is so significant—we maintain the excitement where there is no water! Now, whether this excitement can last is something that will depend on us.

Chen Shaoxiong: In that case, Big Tail Elephants must turn into a great camel! And it truly has. From where we stand, it is true that traditional culture has little influence over us, political issues involve us only remotely, and Western paradigms are far removed. It is precisely from this position of remote detachment that uniqueness arises. On the other hand, international standards do insidiously restrict or influence China’s art. When the West comes across certain distinguishing features of contemporary Chinese art, it integrates these works into the international canon on the grounds that they are either part of the broad spectrum of human culture or have special value as regional art. But if we were to discuss this, there is simply too much to consider, and the subject is hard to elaborate for now.

Lin Yilin: Ever since the May Fourth Movement,3 Chinese art has been heavily diluted and weakened by the influence of foreign culture; generally speaking, pre-nineteenth-century Western art has probably been accepted best. If you ignore the content and focus only on structure, official art in China is basically a variation of nineteenth-century Western art paradigms. Over time, the West has evolved from an agricultural society into an industrial one, and from there into an age of information technology. Contemporary Western art is certainly a product of these societal changes. Europe and the U.S. are currently economically strong and culturally dominant, but as China catches up with these developed countries, it might be able to compete with them in terms of investment in culture. By that time, the division between the international and Chinese paradigms might disappear, or at least become less ambiguous or confusing.

Xu Tan: When it comes to international or Chinese paradigms, I don't think China really has a paradigm yet. If we try to make sense of the criteria used in national exhibition awards, we find they aren't significant enough to be called the paradigm of an individual culture. Whatever criteria we have now are all just imported.

Lin Yilin: In order to establish a real Chinese art paradigm, we must consider two factors: first, artistic quality, and second, awareness of the field of contemporary culture. Surely we are speaking not only of regional cultural awareness, but also of its comparison and relation to others.

Chen Shaoxiong: When Western scholars are evaluating contemporary Chinese art, they look into more than just the culture and quality of the art; they consider social issues, too. They view China’s inferiority in social and economic development and base their evaluations on these standards. This is why they see Chinese art as only ornamental instead of viewing it on a competitive level.

Lin Yilin: When artists consider art, they should disregard geographic distinction and focus more on the art itself, because everyone is, in one way or another, trapped in and confined to the society in which they live. For example, considering current productivity in China, artists don’t have the privilege of utilizing art forms involving higher technologies, such as computers. The medium you use might be intimately tied to the surrounding social conditions, and this is one way that art can reveal those conditions. The problem with contemporary Chinese art is that both the artists and the critics are more concerned with expressing worries about society and venting their own emotions bluntly in the images. This is permissible, but it shouldn’t be the sole focus. Another group of artists, those who focus on essential artistic issues, is often neglected. It’s not that these artists don’t reflect on society in their works, it’s that they do so in a more introverted, subtle way.

Chen Shaoxiong: Speaking of social issues, there are two problems that we must consider separately. One is the problem of the social system; the other is the problem of developing productivity within society. If the creation of an artwork relies on a certain technology, we would certainly fall behind; on the other hand, from the standpoint of the social system, China possesses some unique characteristics that might interest Westerners. Here in Guangzhou, the advanced state of economic development brings us closer to the developed countries, and political influences rarely truly affect us; therefore, artistically speaking, we are free from social restraints and problems when trying to present a so-called indigenous art.

Xu Tan: For now, when we concern ourselves with the international paradigm and the Chinese paradigm, while we sound as if we are promoting Eastern culture, we are also just trying to explain the opposite influence: that of traditional Chinese culture on contemporary Western culture. For various reasons, Westerners welcome this influence, but truthfully speaking, they probably don't understand where the merits of Eastern culture’s traditions lie. They come to China, select artworks, and exhibit them back in the West; all this amounts to a superficial exploration of Eastern culture. Unfortunately, what they’ve explored are political and social issues. Of course, this can serve as a start, and it’s all right, because the rest takes time! It takes patient dedication. As for international criteria, they do exist; many artistic issues are issues to be studied as a discipline—visual arts and vision, the relationship between art and society, the extent of society’s impact on art—all these issues have been explored by many people. It would be impossible for us to sum up all this laborious work in a term as simple as “Chinese criteria.” Let me provide a concrete example. Lin Yilin had an artwork back in the Netherlands, one with fruits hanging on the wall. I believe this is a fairly straightforward idea, but it is indeed one that doesn’t come easily to an artist. Visual, biological, and psychological effects are all in play, and anyone who saw the piece felt an intense imbalance, one that is hard to capture in words. It is a matter of vision and discipline, not just implicit commentary on society, political issues, or Eastern culture. We were raised in this society, on Chinese soil; we developed into ordinary human beings, and especially those of us who have our abilities, cannot be indifferent to this life and this society. Our lives are inevitably fueled with passion nourished by this land and its resources. But in our day and age, if artists wish to have long artistic lives and make a cultural contribution through their work, they must concern themselves with international criteria and cannot stand to one side. Because of where we stand, and because the resources we employ are so regional, I hope that our ideas are in sync with the most advanced ideas of the day.

Lin Yilin: Chinese art is marked by the exigencies of the social environment in which it is created. Such limitations are not necessarily harmful. For example, the materials each of you sitting here uses reflect this society’s material foundation and economic development. And now, I wish to move our discussion to the artists and their works. Let’s talk about Xu Tan first. Initially, Xu Tan worked with a traditional art form—easel painting. He then moved to combining easel painting with the readymade, and now he’s working on multimedia installations. In 1992, he used fluorescent plastic tubes, a common material found in almost every karaoke nightclub4 in Guangzhou, and glassmaking techniques used in the local production of handicrafts and sculpture. This illustrates how a glimpse of Guangzhou society is captured in Xu Tan's works, although that has never been his artistic intention.



Liang Juhui: Xu Tan’s works also relate to the food culture of southern China, for example, its local restaurants and dapaidong.5

Lin Yilin: The organizer of the Berlin exhibition China Avant-Garde was especially interested in Xu Tan’s new works.6 He had never before seen an artist use fluorescent plastic tubes in an artwork. I think Western society disdains this kind of entertainment culture, and so it’s no wonder that no Western artist has ever tried to use such material. This also reflects how great the discrepancy can be when it comes to the materials that each region provides for its artists. In Xu Tan’s works, you can see how he cares for popular culture. In this regard, you might compare him to Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf, although regional, economic, and racial differences lead them to focus on different sorts of objects. The significance of Xu Tan’s works might seem even more complex than theirs, given that his works reference a wide variety of cultural factors.

Xu Tan: Chen Shaoxiong and I were discussing an issue—artworks can have provocative intentions. From Marcel Duchamp to Joseph Beuys, our lives, all the things in our world, everything can be turned into art; there is nothing that cannot become art. But here comes the problem: if everything can become art, then art loses its meaning. I think Jeff Koons is truly amazing; he was able to find something in our society that wasn’t yet art. I heard that 50 percent of Americans don’t consider his work to be art, while no one dares to deny that Duchamp’s works are. My hope is that if one day I can find something that isn’t art, I’ll rush to do it. Unfortunately, I just can’t find it. I created an artwork that refers to restaurants, and while people think a urinal is art, they don’t seem to think that restaurants [count as art]. . . .7 Take those shiny colorful lights in restaurants as an example. Many of us are willing to accept filthy trash as art, but somehow when we look at clean, beautiful things, we see ornament and not art. I have spent my life upsetting my artistic peers, and I find it very exciting.

Lin Yilin: Your goal might be to upset your contemporaries, but perhaps future artists will be thrilled by your work.

Xu Tan: The problem is, once I do it [a work that seems to be non-art], people turn happy.

Chen Shaoxiong: But you have to know, people are happy about your work not because it is art, and this is a very intriguing kind of happiness; their happiness might actually come about because they don’t think it’s art.

Lin Yilin: I find a paradox in Xu Tan’s works. On the one hand, we see your engagement with Chinese popular culture, and on the other, even deeper, your contemplation of mankind’s survival issues, such as wars. On your canvases, we see references to the war in the Middle East, Yugoslavia’s civil war, and variations on classical war paintings.You have two lines of thought in a single work.8 Do you think such dissonance gives your mind a kind of consonance?

Xu Tan: Our era has produced this condition—we are used to accepting dissonance. Human brains possess the ability to smooth things over. In the past, once an idea entered the system, whether it was harmonious or not, it was processed until it reached a state of harmony, and then it was accepted and we felt more comfortable with it. However, I’ve noticed that this is no longer so. Things have changed: we have become unable to process dissonance in this way. This is something our era has forced on us. Our living condition gives us such a sense, and I feel like what I did in that work is truthful. Recycling and reconfiguring used materials [found objects] creates a peculiar and especially thrilling feeling. The bamboo in Liang Juhui’s work is coated with a layer of light-green paint and is assembled in association with lamps. A visual-psychological analysis of the materials suggests that the bamboo is hard to swallow, and the work seems so vulgar! Such mediocrity, such handicraft. . . . At the time he first showed the works I was envious of him, because many who didn’t appreciate them claimed they weren’t art but handicraft, and I thought to myself, “Great, how I wish someone spoke of me in this way!” What I find best about it is precisely the fact that it doesn’t seem to be art, that it seems more like craft. By the way, it is that thought again: urinals can be art, while handicrafts cannot? Liang Juhui’s artworks illustrate this problem perfectly. You see people collecting rotten bicycles from vacant lots and then calling it art, but such art has no appeal because ever since Duchamp, we’ve all known that this can be art. Now handicrafts becoming art— that is something that proves Liang Juhui’s brilliance. His works are very characteristic of Eastern culture. A material such as bamboo is especially devoid of the sense of being an art material. Just like Lin Yilin’s comments [above] about how Westerners are particularly sensitive to material, I think bamboo is an exception to such sentiments because it is so hollow! It is very different from the materials favored by Westerners, such as steel or concrete; bamboo is especially Eastern, and it gives off such a feeling and generates particular cultural associations. Therefore, this work has it all covered. In the 1970s, people emphasized the purity of form and the aesthetics; if you take away the cultural connotations, bamboo serves this exact function.

Liang Juhui: In my first artwork, the mirror and the “cabinet,”9 there was what appeared to be a cabinet; I painted it neatly, placed small mirrors in its tiny square holes, and combined it with a big mirror to create a very ordinary space. It was the labor of a handyman. In my second piece, I used bamboo, lamps, and wisteria to create a large handcrafted work, that’s all.

Lin Yilin: If you look from Liang Juhui’s first piece, with mirrors, to his second piece, with bamboo, you might think there’s great gap between his works. It would almost seem as if he is fickle or leaps from one idea to the next, and it makes you wonder: is he trying to affirm the original subject, or deny it? From what he has just told us, we can see how rare an artist he is. We don’t find any specific message in his work; all we see is passion to complete something. In the process, he remains true to his understanding of the world and what he wants to do—an interest in handicraft itself. This makes the artwork especially genuine and free of unstable factors introduced by superficial changes.

Chen Shaoxiong: The gap between Liang Juhui’s two works lies in the lack of consistency or continuity in the materials used; instead, there is a coherence in how he explores new material, and this itself is the consistency.

Lin Yilin: The way he turns materials vulgar might be something he is unaware of, and yet this lack of awareness is invaluable. If not for this lack, he might have just repeated what contemporary Western artists have been doing, such as Jeff Koons’s interest in vulgarity as well as photographs by Pierre et Gilles, which all express sensitivity to the world. Liang Juhui’s works, on the other hand, are not products of his awareness of vulgarity.

Liang Juhui: I like to transform ordinary material into a crafted work, a work of completion, not in the sense of pure artistic beauty, but of crafted perfection.

Xu Tan: The insight Lin Yilin just offered makes complete sense. In Liang Juhui’s bamboo work, I see corruption. This corruption is different from that of Jeff Koons. Koons acts as if he set out to be corrupt, making him somewhat affected or as if he is trying too hard, whereas Liang Juhui brings corruption into his art with a pure and innocent heart, as if he is genuinely elated and excited about following that path. In this sense, I feel like it’s almost an innocent corruption—perhaps you won’t like my choice of words!

Liang Juhui: Nonsense! I like it! I like it very much! Art is like when a person buys paint for a cabinet in his home, and he brushes and paints until it is smooth—I like this job!

Chen Shaoxiong: From the bottom of your heart.