Gang – The Awakened Warrior, an exhibition sponsored by Hongkong Land, will be staged at The Rotunda of Exchange Square starting today. It features an exclusive collection of 18 sculptures by the young contemporary Chinese artist, Ren Zhe (任哲). The artist distinguishes himself in his art by employing the spirit of heroism from ancient warriors as a vehicle to infuse his fascination and respect for traditional Chinese culture into the spiritually deprived contemporary culture. #legend spoke with Ren Zhe prior the exhibition
You use the word ‘awakening’ yet your work is so dynamic it hardly feels asleep. How do we read the word ‘awakening’?
There’s a distinction between awakening and waking up. What I really meant is awakening the inner energy, something within yourself. In Tibetan Buddhism, certain wise men are also called the awakened warrior, so this title can help enlighten a younger generation and help them discover the powers and positive energy within oneself. That’s why I picked it.
The work is in stainless steel or copper or both?
My preference is to use metal. Metal has better liquidity. The use of the materials can more accurately encapsulate the spirits and capture the figure.
Do you listen to music when you sculpt?
I always wear headphones when I sculpt. And yes, when I do one sculpture I listen to the same piece of music over and over and over for the entire month, or for the entire duration of the sculpture. I play random music, and if there’s something I really like, I keep playing it.
Favourite Chinese filmmaker?
Favourite Ang Lee film?
A Life of Pi.
How long does one piece take to create?
About 180 days.
What’s your strike rate like. Do you get three quarters through and think ‘I don’t like this anymore’?
Usually I can make about ten per year. So in twelve years that’s about 120, but I’ve only made 40. There’s a particular piece called The White Feather that’s just a skeleton. This one I discarded four times. I wasn’t satisfied, so I made it again.
When do you title a work? How do you know what to call it?
It varies. Before I start I have a certain direction. Most of the time, after I’ve made it, I’ll come up with a proper name for the sculpture. Sometimes my friends have ideas and keep changing my titles.
I look at your work and see references like Da Vinci sketches, Rodin sculptures, Giacometti—do they have any bearing on how you think, see, execute your sculpture? Are they even there or are they just my Western perception?
So basically good art shouldn’t have any boundaries and should belong to the human race and to mankind equally. I like all the masters you have mentioned, but if I had to pick one particular moment in Western art history that I like, I would pick Art Nouveau. During that period the masters started to break boundaries between different art forms, countries and cultures, for example, there are Western masters heavily influenced by Japanese art. It’s similar to the Tang dynasty in Chinese history, where people started coming from all over the world, where people and cultures interact and mix with each other.
I feel Western overtones in your work, whereas someone like Shao Fan feels very Chinese. Yours is ‘user-friendly’ art. How would you react to that statement?
From my perspective, art has two functions. One is the aesthetic, showing what beauty is, the other side is education; it’s a public function of art. I want an educational purpose for the younger generation and to be more easily understood. Then they can dig deeper and understand the meaning behind the artworks. The title of the exhibition, it’s not Gang as in the English word like a ‘street gang’ but it broadly represents a positive energy, as the Chinese character implies thought. I want the audience to feel positive energy through appreciating the artwork and sculptures. You can find Western influence, but the spirit is very Oriental and Chinese, but the two are not mutually exclusive and we should take a holistic approach to see the Western culture and the Eastern culture. One of the most important points is that I want to show my art in a more contemporary way so it has greater appeal to different audiences. I want you to be attracted to my artworks or have an inner connection to my artworks. Art form is one thing, but feelings are all interconnected. And that’s why you can appreciate my artworks I hope – because the artwork encapsulates a certain type of spirit. It’s easier for me to develop Chinese culture in this regard.
Attention spans of young Chinese are much less than a decade ago because of Instagram. Do you more actively grab their attention?
So, you have to see it from two sides. In the past, it could well be because there wasn’t much information and you focused on one thing only. Now it’s booming and overwhelming. You have to strike a balance between the depth and breadth of the information, so just let it flow, let it be, it’s neither good or bad. For the future, there shouldn’t be boundaries between occupations, or industries, no boundaries between Earth and Mars [laughter]. It’s the job of an artist to be innovative and creative. Simultaneously, an artist has to remain a child, to have a pure heart, true to oneself.
The child within you is still strong.
Ask my friends.
Shao Fan bemoans the lack of ‘renaissance thinking’ in this age among China’s young. Do you feel that? Is that what your art is in a quest to rekindle?
What’s your zodiac sign?
Why do you ask?
I want to understand you.
July 6, 1967. Do I pass the test?
I think in West and East there are the same kind of problems. For example, when you make a sculpture you often have to polish at the very end in factories, and it’s very tough and very unpleasant. It was hard to recruit the younger generation to do that job, that type of work, maybe because nowadays society is richer with resources and what the post-1990s children do not necessarily look for the same thing as the older people. They focus on quality of life— from my point of view that is not a bad thing, it’s a progression of time. And when we look back in time, we may say, ‘oh, it made perfect sense at that time’. So I think we don’t need to look back at how we lived in the past, it’s just natural progression. But I do think fundamental and spiritual values should be passed on. So what my warriors are trying to portray and embody: bravery, perseverance, loyalty, friendship, responsibility, those kinds of qualities should be passed on, but not necessarily how you live your life.
I love that answer but what does it have to do with my birthday?
It’s very interesting. In Chinese culture we have 12 signs, similar to the West. Each has its own attributes. If you’re in the same horoscope you have similar qualities. The way you interview is different – that prompted my curiosity.
When’s your birthday?
I’m a lion.
In an age of heroism, where do you stand on technology, ideas like robotica, electronic people? Positive or threatening?
In principle I embrace technology, that’s just a necessary progression. But, the application of technology is the key question. For technology to be applied in the art industry it’s very difficult, because ultimately art wants to portray emotions, and without emotions you will lose the draw of that particular artwork. Even now I can use robots and technology to help me construct a lot of art, but then, it lacks the emotions and connections with an audience. If they had emotions, then in theory they could possibly replace human beings but I don’t see that happening currently. Emotions are very, very important, you rely on machines but don’t fall in love with them, as you would a human.
A particular design can make you feel emotion though. Look at the first generation of the iPhone. A very good example. You can feel the passion that goes into it. The fundamental value in an artwork is not the hardware but the emotion and passion dedicated. That’s what does the talking and you can feel it. So my connection with the first generation apple is my love of the design and Steve Jobs dedication and passion. Later models are just pure upgrades of technology. And that’s the distinction between an artwork and commodities and products.
The Awakened Warrior will be on show at The Rotunda of Exchange Square from March 7 to March 30.