Ma Desheng

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 January, 2010, 12:00am

BORN IN THE PRC I was born in Beijing in 1952. It was there that I grew up, studied and stirred things up for the first half of my life. I had polio as a child, so my health was not great. Although I had two brothers and two sisters, I was often at home playing on my own; that is when I started drawing - copying illustrations and cartoons. Mao Zedong's ideal youth possessed three qualities: sound skills and moral and physical strength. I lacked all three, so I was not allowed into state art school. But an artist expresses a true reading on life as he or she knows it. They are motivated by an exploration of, say, love or hate, rather than what is selling well in the market or, certainly, the dictates of the state.

STARS IN HIS EYES In 1976, the Cultural Revolution was at an end; Mao had died. The city was starting to shake off the oppres- sion and you could feel things changing. A Democracy Wall was established as a platform for people to voice democratic dissent and call for reparations. Those of us involved in art wanted to erect a wall of art. We [known as The Stars] had two goals: first, to speak the truth; second, to celebrate diversity and individuality in art. After 10 years of everyone wearing the same clothes, singing the same songs, watching the same propaganda films, even making the same art, we wanted to diversify the approach and format of art - abstract, figurative, whatever - so people could fully express themselves. We had no access to state-owned exhibition spaces. In 1979, we put up our first [guerilla] exhibition, outside the Beijing National Art Museum. It was shut down after two days. The people's response was favourable and the state eventually approved further exhibitions. This was because, during the reform [from 1979 to the early 1980s], Deng Xiaoping was more relaxed about artistic expression. Once he secured his seat of power, he clamped down again.

Life was so homogenous for most people that anything that stood out was a reason for excitement. Now that China's doors are open wider, I think The Stars have faded in people's minds. We did not represent a school of artistic style; that was not the point. Young artists today look at the work we made without historical context. 'Ah, OK. You guys did not have it easy back then,' is the standard response, before a return to coffee and cloud-watching.

THE SHOW MUST GO ON After 1980, opportunities began to disappear. Wang Geping, Huang Rui and I tried to mount smaller shows but we were shut down. I tried my luck in Shanghai but, again, the shows would be shut down before they opened. There was no artistic future for us in China, so about half of the group left - some to the United States and others to Europe. We wanted to go to where art flourished in the West, for a look-see. After leaving China [in 1983], I was in Switzerland for six months, until the money ran out. A friend in France sponsored my visa.

My life in Paris was very simple. I didn't know people, didn't know the galleries. I lived in an attic apartment and every day I had to walk up and down eight flights of stairs on crutches. I made many paintings in this tiny space. Eventually, in 1987, I found a proper studio and a gallery to represent me. I had many exhibitions and museums [such as the Musee d'Histoire Contemporaine] were starting to include my work in their collections.

SUFFERING AND ART I went to the US in 1989. In 1992, I had a car accident that paralysed my lower body. For 10 years, I stopped making any big oil paintings while my body was operated on twice. My hands gave me trouble but I did keep up with small watercolours [between 5,000 and 6,000 paintings] during that time.

Back in Paris, in 2002, I felt my strength returning and I tried acrylic paint. I liked its density and it was also easy to correct. My easel is set to rotate, so I can work on every part of the canvas, even in a wheelchair. It's a bit fussy but a lot of happy accidents come from working on an upside-down canvas. I feel physical pain every waking moment but painkillers are out of the question, they cloud my mind. I try to eat simply - just salad at the moment - and of course, wine; I am an artist, after all.

I still perform my poetry, which occupies a different part of my brain to painting. When I perform I forget everyone else in the world. It is a conversation with myself. It is a communion with words, which have their own life. No two recitals of the same poem are alike.

THE TASTE TEST The difference between making art under an oppressive regime and in a free country, to me, is like drinking tea and coffee - it's a matter of taste. It does not affect my artistic process at all. I remember when I first set foot in Europe, I was devoid of any excitement. Does that sound strange? Perhaps I was French in my last life. I looked at the art, the museums, the books and I did not find them surprising; they were rather like I had imagined.

I don't have a fixed concept of 'home'. I'm 'at home on the four seas'. Perhaps this character developed in childhood. I depended to an extent on family and friends, country, Earth and universe but ultimately I depend on myself. Think: a doctor can operate on you but you have to do the healing; when you lose a lover, only you can pick yourself back up. [Ma lost his wife in the 1992 car accident]. To love yourself, protect yourself, use yourself - that is what makes life meaningful.

Ma Desheng's solo exhibition 'Story of Stone' runs until next Sunday, 10am to 8pm daily, at Pao Galleries, Hong Kong Arts Centre, 2 Harbour Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2582 0255. For more information on the artist and his work, visit