Sun Xun in Conversation with Ying Tan

On 24/02/2015 by CFCCA Administrator

Last night CFCCA screened Sun Xun’s film What Happened in the Year of the Dragon at Cornerhouse, Manchester, followed by a Q&A with the artist and CFCCA curator Ying Tan.


Ying Tan: I guess I’ll start by putting this work in a bit of context. So, this work was completed in 2014, after a process of around 3 years, with the support of Edouard Malingue Hong Kong. It was part of a show entitled Brave New World. There are quotes from Franz Kafka and Aldous Huxley, so I’d like to ask what the relationship is between this work and Huxley’s novel, Brave New World?

Sun Xun: Yes, my work has some relationship with some of these kinds of people, but the quotes are in fact not true; I just borrowed the name, the words are mine. But it makes you take it more seriously. If I, Sun Xun, say something then maybe you wouldn’t care; but if you see Kafka’s name, you’ll pay attention to the ideas.

YT: Yes, that was very clever I thought. At CFCCA we’re showing some of your earlier works, including Chinese Words, which we also projected onto St Ann’s Church for the Chinese New Year celebrations. In this work you use chalk, whilst What Happened in The Year of the Dragon is in watercolour, so I was wondering how you decide what medium to use in each animation, and the importance of this.

SX: Well, in the Chinese Words Animation, which I did whilst I was a student in Hangzhou, so it was partly to do with time constraints, and the monochrome qualities of the chalk. As a professional artist I can develop any works I want, without these constraints, so I wanted to use many colours.

YT: You also use a lot of symbols, I see, in your work; for example the magician, the conductor… – that’s something that recurs. Is this something that’s linked with cultural identity? Why do you use these symbols?

SX: Because I’m just thinking about our world, about truth.  The magician is a liar. We go to enjoy the magic in theatres, buy tickets to go and see magic, but magic is a lie. People are buying lies, in one way or another. So I was thinking about the magician, about lies, and about magic, and how we define them. We can also look at the cinema industry as a big lying system. People pay to see a movie in a cinema, a controlled environment: you’re given a number, and you have to sit there, you can’t lie down – like a big prison. In front of you, everything is a lie: but, this film can make you cry or make you laugh. So, I was just thinking about how we can look at this situation: are people stupid? No, nobody is stupid, but why do they need to buy these lies, what happens in our lives that makes us want to see these lies. And I was thinking then about the magician, who is he? It’s my job as an artist to ask these questions, but not to answer them.

YT: So, are there any questions from the audience, I have a lot more but I will open it up to all of you.

Audience: In What Happened in the Year of the Dragon, and some of your other works such as Coal Spell, there’s a clear relationship between China’s history and contemporary China, which seems to be a real interest for you in your works. Can you tell us more about why industrial history is so important in your work?

SX: Normally in my work I am just making a new story, a different lie. For example, Brave New World is a lie, a very famous novel, but a lie. Another lie is the cover of the magazine that you can see in the film. This is designed by me in the Dragon year, 2011 for an English-language economics magazine in Beijing. So the editor asked me to design the cover for the first issue of the year. In China we look to the future, and ask what will happen in the coming year. You can see two dragons fighting; now I’m not sure how much you know about contemporary China but there were are some important political events during that year. I finished this film in 2014, so I’m dictating the events of that year, I am the magician. I’ve put a lot of history into the film. In the Tiananmen Square scene you can see four flags: the first one is the current flag of China, the second is the previous government, and the third one is the first flag of the People’s Republic, after the Qing Dynasty; the next one is from a previous work where I designed everything for a new country; the last one is my Studio flag. So I’m mixing real history with fictional history. People can think I know this, I know this, but this – I don’t know.

Audience: You’ve talked about how you make your work. For me there are a lot of differences between this and other animations I have seen. There are a lot of quite dark undertones to it; could you talk about why it’s important to use the medium of animation, rather than video, for example, or other media. What’s the importance of using animation and drawing in your work?

SX:Because I’m interested in both drawing or painting and film. What is animation? Animation is drawing time. And what is painting? In painting you are drawing images. Putting them together creates a new space. I also try to use different material in different film. I also work in sculpture, installation, wall painting and performance. All these things go into my animations. So, I just want to make my work bigger and bigger, and never to copy myself, so I’m always changing my processes.

YT: It’s interesting what you’re saying about time, that animation is drawing in time because when you see Sun Xun’s work in the gallery, the stop-frame animation which uses time almost as another medium is what makes it so immersive for the audience I think bcause you’re almost part of the temporality of Sun Xun’s creative process as well as the viewing.

YT: Are there more questions?

Audience: I’d like to go back to some of the scenes. Particularly the scene with all the flags; behind that we have Tiananmen Square, and the image of Mao is not clear, his face is animated. I’m just wondering, going back to the theme of lying and deceiving an audience. Are you commenting then on how an audience accepts what a government says, accepts the lie that’s told to them; like going to the cinema, we accept it’s a lie and we just use it for entertainment. I wanted to know if this is something you were getting at with that particular scene?

SX: Yes I want to talk about politics here, but I must make something clear first. The image is not clear because the image is not Mao, it’s me! So I’m making fun of History.   

Audience: Yeah, I was just wondering because that image of Mao, from Tiananmen Square, is a standard image, and it’s the only image that’s allowed to be displayed. And yet, you play around with that idea and put yourself there, I think that’s fascinating in terms of what you’re trying to comment on, the larger political issues.

YT: Yes, your use of humour and like fake quotes, almost like jokes.

SX: I’m making a new history. Of course, no government can control the country for ever. So what about next, so next it’s my country, then my studio’s country. So going back to the magazine, the editor wanted me to talk about the future of the dragon year, but that wasn’t enough, I wanted to talk about more

YT: Any other questions?

Audience: There is quite a lot of classical Chinese imagery, juxtaposed with Obama for example. Is there a reason why these two motifs are put together like this?

SX:That image is borrowed, like others in the film, from that magazine. The image of Obama is talking about the political system and how Americans chose a new president. In China we always talk about freedom, politics and how the system of political freedom can be designed. Not only to change a government, but how to design a system that’s good for Chinese people. But I’m also just making fun of the political system.

YT: Let’s have one last question.

Audience: Thankyou for a wonderful film. What do you think will happen in the year of the sheep?  

SX: I think a big change will happen, in my opinion. The new president is very powerful and is taking power from a lot of high level politicians; a lot have gone to prison now. Why were these people able to get such a high position in the first place? This situation has made people confused. I think China wanted him to get power and what’s important is what he will do next.

Sun Xun: Stately Shadows is at CFCCA unti March 22nd. Supported by Edouard Malingue Gallery. You can find out more information here.

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