Aowen Kitaika Jin was born in the year when China re-opened its doors to the world. She became the first generation to be able to continue her higher education outside of China after the Cultural Revolution. She came to Britain for its cultural, political and geographic importance in the Western world.
Stefanie Kaiser had tea with her in London…
Q: Aowen, please tell me first: Where exactly do you come from?
I was born in Luoyang, in the centre of China. The place is famous for its Shaolin temple. It´s actually in a way the place where civilization in China began – and that´s where I come from.
Q: On your personal website I saw that initially, you actually studied economics. I wonder, with Chinese parents being rather achievement-focused, what was your family´s reaction when you decided to study art after such a “desirable” start in a UK school of Economics?
Well, as Chinese parents cannot have more than one child, there is of course a lot of hope of not spoiling this only “opportunity” of having a successful descendent.
I came here to London when I was 18, to study Economics and Law. I wanted to go abroad and the UK was a good place, and close to Europe. So I started the career that was supposed to be good for me, but after a while I discovered my individuality and realized that I actually wanted to do what I was passionate about; and I was passionate about doing art and painting.
Q: And your parents, what did they say?
(Laughs) they were so shocked, they didn´t say anything! Actually I only told them when I had already been studying at Goldsmiths Art School for a year, until I got actually accepted for the course. And then they accepted my decision.
Q: When did you finish your art studies?
Q: And since then? Have you been actively working as an artist, even making a living from art?
I have been working as an artist since then, and creating a lot of works, but it´s hard to be completely self-sufficient as an artist, so I also work as a consultant for a Japanese bank, doing research on Chinese culture.
Q: I asked that question, because it looks like at the moment there is a trend of Chinese art becoming more and more market-oriented. You have an alternative income, and that gives you the freedom to do simply create the art your own art, independent of what the market says.
Being a Chinese artists, do you sometimes have the feeling that you are just being classified as “Chinese artist”, rather than as Aowen Jin, the artist?
Here in the UK, I can just do my art, as an individual artist, and that´s it. But in China I don´t feel like this. For example, I´m also working with a Chinese gallery. So they look at my portfolio and say: “This kind of works we can sell, however, these other work is too contemporary, so don´t even bother”.
For example, this is very Chinese, it´s made of Chinese silk fibers and I put it into the shape of a hairclip. But it looks like some kind of organic growth, doesn´t it? I created a whole series of these sculptures, it´s such an amazing process. But there would be no space for such things in the Chinese market, it´s impossible for them to collect, they don´t like these kind of things.
Look at this performance of mine, it´s one of my favourite works, and the public loved it. The whole thing is about how your sensorial perceptions can evoque memories from the past, in this case it´s about scents, smell. So I made a tent in which I placed some kind of heater that releases strong herbal scents that are used in the Traditional Chinese Medicine.
These smells are very familiar to us Chinese people and evoque different memories in us. So during the performance, I was inside the tent, enveloped by this intense aroma, and started to paint the images that came up in my mind, triggered by the aroma. I was there for hours, and the audience, simple passer-by, would observe me in my creation process and ask me questions of why I was choosing to paint certain things.
As you can see in the video, this performance took place in China. The government´s simply said that they don´t promote these kinds of art performance pieces. I think it´s just because they don´t really understand that this can be art; for them, art is something that people can buy and expose in their homes or offices. But in this case, the artwork was not just a painting, but a whole process consisting of different layers, if you know what I mean. Even the audience is part of that work.
Q: Well, some well- established artists, such as Zhang Huan, sell photos or videos of their performances for a lot of money.
Yes, but this kind of art doesn´t sell as sell as artworks that are real objects. Painting is easiest to sell. You know that now Beijing and Shanghai have turned into important market places for art. But a lot of collectors or buyer go there and want to acquire something that looks pretty and authentic on their walls, but also has a certain market value. And of course, most buyers don´t have a gallery space at home, and this also restricts in a way what kind of works they can buy for their reduced domestic exhibition space. And in particular in China you have to actually please the collectors, if you want to make money from your art.
Q: Can you show me that work with the fish on a plate, please?
Yes, this painting is part of a whole series that deals with the issue of the one-child policy in China.
Outside of China, I´m constantly being approached by people who ask me about the one-child policy: How horrible it must be, how sorry they feel for us. But there are many aspects of this policy, and not all are negative. If it weren´t because of this law, I probably wouldn´t have been able to come to study abroad. My parents raised me as their only child and gave me everything they had, and eventually even allowed me to do what I really wanted to do. Because they want all the best for me. And the single-child policy has liberated a lot of women, who have gotten the very best opportunities being the only child in the family.
As we had discussed earlier, Chinese parents expect so much from their only child. They invest so much in this only child that it is understandable that they want it to have a great job and a good life in general. That´s why I initially started to study law, you see?
Q: And what does the fish on the plate stand for?
I wanted to represent a single child in a Chinese family. As you can see, it is a mermaid, but instead of the head being human and the legs being substituted by a fish tail, it is the other way round, it´s the head which has been replaced by a fish. It stands for productivity, rather than individuality, and the females lower body stands for her reproductive value, and her correct function, the movement apparatus, so to say. The resulting creature, modelled by ambitious parents, is present on a plate. It´s about a woman´s value in Chinese society.
When I prepared the exhibition on this topic I wanted to create artworks that depicted the issue of the one-child policy in its multiple layers.
For example, in the villages, it is like a blessing of the gods to give birth to a son. Fertility is being considered a very important characteristic in women, and voluptuous women are sought-after, because they are more likely to bear a healthy son. That´s why you see this kind of women in some works of the series. In the cities, the culture is now completely different, and this preference for a son has ceased to exist, even with the one child policy.
This cultural difference between Chinese villages and cities is a topic I´m going to explore in my next commission.
Q: Would you say that most artists of Chinese orgin who live abroad sooner or later deal with typically Chinese issues such as consumerism or society´s focus on achievement?
Wherever I go in the world people ask about my opinion on Chinese politics and culture. From talking to people I strongly feel that there is so much misunderstanding about how Chinese people really feel and the lives they live. I want to show the West more about the strength of Chinese to survive and thrive under different conditions.
China is one of the fastest-growing countries in the world, and there are a lot of interesting things happening every day. Imagine for example Europe during a time of revolution or big changes. I´m sure that during these times, certain issues are present in the works of all kinds of artists. But especially in art and culture, Europe is quite stable now, the big changes have happened in the past. But not in China, where so much is going on, and things are changing every day. Therefore it is understandable that artists of Chinese origin are interested in reflecting these changes that are constantly occurring in their homecountry.
But of course there are also Chinese artists who are experimenting with different more Western art styles.
Q: But maybe those are not promoted by Western collectors and gallerists as “Chinese artists”.
Well, it´s difficult for them to compete with the West. Europeans and Americans have a long history in art and a lot of art has been seen. So it´s difficult for Chinese who now want to work with Western art styles to create some really special. But if they process the very interesting and continuous happenings in their country they can “explain” their own culture to other societies through their art. And that is definitively very fascinating for art lovers and collectors, because they can feel the artist´s passion that stands behind an exhibition work.
Q: What we get from the media lately, is that in China art is all about money, an artists more and more produce art that is “sellable”. What is your opinion on that?
I think in China, there are different types of artists who pursue fame: for example, there are those who create art that is completely against what the government expects them to do. And the West is very happy about that. A Chinese artist who is sent to jail is more likely to become famous than another one. So these artists who are using politics to sell themselves and their art are opportunists I would say. They are only there for the money instead of having something worth saying.
Q: However, provocation has been (or still is) present in Western art as well.
But the difference in China is that if you do certain “provocative” things, you betray your culture and people, just to become famous. They do not just rebel against something specific; some of them move abroad, and then come up with this “now I´m against my government, my culture and my people” attitude. They feel like they have to do “art” dealing with Tibet or other issues that are just controversial in the country. And not because it´s their ideology. And they might make people feel bad about what they´re doing.
Q: You disagree with these people´s attitude of using politics as a tool for their art. However, I see that you are very concerned about certain happenings in your country. Would you say that you are, somehow, using your art as a tool to do politics?
In a certain way yes. What I want is that Western people get to understand what is really happening in China and how Chinese people think in reality. If I´m able to change their pre-set opinion on at least some aspects of our culture and identity, I´m happy because I have achieved something.
Q: I think you´re preparing an exhibition for the Chinese government, is that right?
The local authority of my hometown, Luoyang, are organizing an event and want me to participate with a number of artworks in a group exhibition. But of course it´s politics again, even when it comes to organizing art exhibitions.
But it is a genuine art exhibition nevertheless. They want to show an example of a local artist who went abroad and did well. So they invited me to participate in an exhibition, together with local artists. The local authorities want to support the exhibition because they have the funds, and they would like to show that they are open-minded to new cultures, and that they promote diversity in our lives.
My hometown is very famous for Peonie, the national flower of China. So most of my hometown´s artists paint peonies, and I actually don´t.
Q: So you will exhibit together with local artists who paint only Peonies?
Well, yes, but I can´t just go there and paint something. I have to think of how I can take this opportunity to express what I want to say in a way that is adequate for this very specific context. And, as I oftenly do, I will probably prepare artworks in different formats and using very different materials. For me, sculpture, painting or photography are simply means to deliver art, so I don´t focus on one type of medium. What matters is the concept.
So, in this case I still need to think of what my art can do for my hometown. I want to visit different villages in my region and see how people live, as conditions there are constantly changing.
Q: For when is the exhibition programmed?
I think it will take place from September to April next year, when my hometown will host the annual Peony Festival.
Q: And will you prepare a series of artworks specifically for that exhibition?
Yes, but they didn´t give me any guidelines. They just said “do some art”. I will exhibit with a group of well known local artists. The only guideline I have is that the artwork represents the cultures of both my hometown and of Britain. And I forgot to mention that my hometown is also famous for its tricolour ceramics. They use a technique that is endemic to Luoyang. So I thought of basing the artworks I create on this old Chinese tradition. And I think instead of just copying it, I can make something new with it. But then there is the problem that I was encouraged to produce something that is sellable, so paintings are always better for that purpose. So there will be a mix of ceramics and painting, probably.
Because the Chinese government has lots of funding, I am able to have a professional TV crew at my expense to also create a documentary showing the making of the works.
I would also like to bring this exhibition to Britain. The idea is that the collaboration between the village painters and me makes sense as a whole, achieves to tell a story about our culture. It should mean more to people than just nicely painted peonies on canvas. So I need to keep on thinking on how to turn this into a great art project.
I am very eager and interested to see what my local artists will product for the exhibition, with traditional Chinese rice paper painting, and to see whether they would push some boundaries.
Q: We have been talking a lot about your role as a “Chinese artist”. But you´ve been in Britain for 15 years now. Have you ever been interested in something that has nothing to do with China, even collaborations with artists from different nationalities?
This series, for example, has nothing to do with China. It´s one of my earlier works, soon after I finished art school, and before I started to be interested in dealing with Chinese topics. It´s about duality and sensuality. There is always two people posing, with one person you can´t make this position, as it´s always two legs, arms, feet or hands of the same side. So it´s always about what´s behind the curtain.
If you have a look at my artworks, you will see that most of my earlier works do not deal with China at all.
It was a pleasure meeting you, Aowen, thank you very much for your time, and for sharing your thoughts with me!