Sheng Qi is one Chinese painter who has transformed personal tragedy into an ongoing artistic dialogue about the future of China – even if it means chopping off his own finger. We caught up with the candid artist as he prepared to open his first London show.
This is your first exhibition in London. How do you feel about it?
My first show – I’m feeling very good. The feedback’s been beyond my expectation.
The first thing you see in the exhibition is Chinese stars like Jackie Chan and Yao Ming holding stacks of renminbi. . Why?
They’re the powerful people who they can influence so many fans. They’re all Chinese, and they are the most influential to a young Chinese generation.
Do you think your art speaks to a Western audience or do you make your art for Chinese people?
I think it definitely speaks to Chinese people because I’m Chinese. I have very limited knowledge about Western history, lifestyle or habit. That’s all from my heart.
Let’s talk about what happened in 1989 – you sliced off your little finger in protest at the Tiananmen Square massacre and buried it in a plant pot. Why?
I wasn’t healthy mentally, and I don’t think I was stable especially after Tiananmen. It was shocking for everyone. It was like you had religion and then one day the religion came crashing down down and then there’s nothing there. After ten years, I realised it reflected the history of the nation. In 1999 I published its image two meters long to put that in a public space, showing that to the public, it’s no longer my private life – it becomes everyone’s experience. I did it on purpose, because they don’t want the trouble so they’re hiding the memory [of Tiananmen] in the dark part of their hearts. One day it will come out.
Do you think China is becoming more progressive and will eventually face up to its past?
Because of the Internet, the world has changed. People can talk online and transfer ideas from one another.
How do Chinese people react to your art?
Chinese prefer colourful beauty – bright colours, beautiful ladies or landscapes. For the Chinese, art is mostly entertainment, something like decoration. My painting is opposite you see. And the Chinese don’t like being criticized. Most Chinese artists are interested in the installation or video art or really fashionable because we want to keep away from the political issue.
Would you ever change your art to fit in or become more accepted in China?
No. I wouldn’t do that; it’s against my principles. It would be a waste of my life.
So how would you want people to remember you as an artist?
“He’s a great man, his art is great.”
Sheng Qi: Post Mao is on until 20 December at the Hua Gallery in London. www.hua-gallery.com
Words: Zing Tsjeng