Big words might scare him silly, but just look Wu's laughing now
One of China's best-known conceptual artists tells P. Ramakrishnan the secret of his brilliant career: Take it easy
In a 1985 work titled The Butterfly of Zhuangzi is a Pair of Scissors, what appear to be Chinese characters on a pitch black canvas turn out to be merely strokes of red oil paint. The only character that has any meaning says 'nirvana'.
A decade later, the medium may have changed, but the same edginess is evident. A photo shows a family picnicking just a few feet away from a nuclear power plant.
Welcome to the world of Wu Shanzhuan - possibly China's best-known conceptual artist. The 45-year-old from Zhoushan was closely associated with the mainland's Political Pop movement of the 1990s. His body of work includes paintings, installation art, performance, photos and drawings.
This Friday, Wu will launch his first book, the bilingual Red Humour International, published by the Asia Art Archive. But don't ask him what it's about because you're unlikely to get a straight answer. Wu can be unpredictable and erratic.
'I don't really care about what people think about my work and take away from it,' says Wu, who is now based in Hamburg. 'I don't define it anyway. Once it's done, I leave it behind. My work stands on its own and there's no word really to describe it. I call it 'Wu's thing'.
'I'm afraid of being serious. I'm afraid of responsibility - that word to me is scary. I always look back on my work, on life, with humour. So the book is Red Humour International. I don't understand these serious, serious artists. Why? Take it easy.'
The book, designed by Ou Nign, includes unpublished material and commissioned texts by critics such as Gao Minglu, Ursula Panhans-Buhler and Qiu Zhijie. Long-time collaborator Inga Svala Thorsdottir - who was featured in a 1993 video still and many of Wu's photos - also helped out.
If it's true that all art is self-expression, what do the video stills or photos say about Wu? 'I'm not here to criticise or promote, condemn or condone,' he says. 'But I think there should be an awareness. The picture of the power plant with the family - I'm not saying whether it's good or bad, but I think people should be aware.
'The photograph of a couple about to jump and swim in Hong Kong harbour - there's no judgment. Criticising something or liking something is an easy emotion. It's one step away from ... well, I think it leads to dictating. What you want is imposed on others. I just want to share. Getting people to think or do what you want - to me that's politics and I'm not about politics.'
Reflecting on some of his more prominent work, Wu says it's strange how the media and critics are intrigued by specific pieces. 'Every article in the media in the past few years - they use the same pictures of my work. Like the photograph of the room filled with Chinese characters or the canvas with the false red characters. I don't understand why.
'To me, the vegetable piece was interesting. I got a lot of vegetables - some organic; others not. I brought them all to a studio and I left them for weeks. It was interesting that some things decayed rapidly, while on others, things started to grow.'
Wu says he doesn't seek inspiration from the things he sees around him. Even the term 'inspiration' irks him.
'I don't like that word. It's another one of those big words that scares me. I don't find inspiration. I don't have a muse. Everyday things like this table or this chair, we just take it, we use it. I have a use-ology for everything that I see, I hear, I smell. It's just my work and that way, I'm always working.'
Meet the author, Lane Crawford, IFC, Sat, 3-5pm. Retrospective of Wu's work, IFC Atrium, Fri-Aug 7