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July 3, 2016

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Master delves into China’s artistic roots

WHILE many of his peers have either passed away or retired, celebrated master Meng Changming is still an active figure in China’s contemporary art world.

Born in Suzhou in 1964, Meng emerged as an important artist in the 1980s as a member of the 85 New Wave Movement. This group advocated for the advancement of contemporary art by knocking down traditional boundaries between concepts, techniques and media.

But before he found fame with his brush, Meng took up arms as a soldier in 1979, when he joined the counter attack against Vietnam. This short experience left a lasting impression on Meng, who is known for his bold and assertive style.

“War really built me into a man. Although it was only about one month, the experience was so unforgettable,” he said.

Meng later moved to the US, where his works were widely exhibited. He also published a series of books on art, directing his passion for painting into words rather than images.

In recent years, Meng has made frequent trips back to China, including for solo-shows in Suzhou and Nanjing. Many of his later ink-wash works on rice-paper explore themes related to Chinese culture and artistic traditions.


Q: As an active member of the 85 New Wave Movement, why did you give up contemporary art and switch to ink-wash painting?

A: As a member of the movement, I not only learned how to revolutionize art forms, but also art concepts as well. Ink-wash is only a material — or, to be more exact, a medium that conveys the ideas and thoughts of an artist. Different experiences will lead to different aesthetic tastes, which result in various expressions. Ink-wash painting is actually an extension of my paintings and they have a clear link.

Q: What prompted you to go to the US, and why do you come back for these exhibitions?

A: It started in 1987, when I spent two years studying Western modern philosophy. I had a strong desire to learn about Western art, and it was too strong to satisfy by just looking in books. So I decided to go to the West and visited nearly all the museums and galleries there. The cost is that I remained silent in the art community for two decades, but I wrote 17 academic books about art. Now the exhibition in Suzhou is my 90th exhibition around the world, and it is a personal expression for my art.

Q: There are quite a lot of Chinese artists returning from overseas. What do you think of this trend?

A: The most precious thing about art is individuality. One’s geographic surroundings will not limit their art. Whether returning to China or going to Europe, Japan or America — there’s really no big difference. I am not interested in fashion or popular art trends. I just stick to art through my personal expression.

Q: How would you describe your painting?

A: If I used simple words to describe it, I would say that my paintings are a sensitive expression through sensible consideration. They have a profound link with classical Chinese aesthetic taste, while at the same time absorb some Western elements.

Q: Now you are painting on ceramics. What drew you to that?

A: I’ve engaged myself in paintings for five decades and I have tried various media, including canvas, sculpture, installation, ink-wash and ceramics and even purple clay mud.

Q: Do you know that there will be a Suzhou Documenta exhibition that will be held in Suzhou this summer? What do you think of Suzhou’s ongoing efforts to establish itself as a center of contemporary art?

A: I had a solo-exhibition at Nanjing Museum in 2003. Then I chose to stay away from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. In fact, the gardens in Suzhou inspired me in my paintings. I want to seek the classical roots of China through the cultural surroundings of the southern part of China, and Suzhou is an amazing city fused with Chinese classical culture.

Q: As a Suzhou native, what’s your emotional link with the city?

A: Strictly speaking, I am not a Suzhou native. In the past six years, I’ve lived as an observer of life in Suzhou. For example, I go to see Kunqu opera and Suzhou pingtan (story telling and ballad sing in Suzhou dialect). Through these ordinary scenes, I consider seriously about art and the aesthetics.


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