Art in Smog

I’m thinking of changing my film title to “Art in Smog” instead of “Art and Smog.”

What I’m hearing from my subjects is that they feel themselves in a haze, trying to go somewhere, but not seeing clearly where to go. I take their statements of personal mental ambiguity as a metaphor for China’s dilemma as a nation, or even the world’s dilemma as a global society.  By interviewing artists and looking at their works, I’m trying to find my own clarity on “What is art?” Why is art compelling, fascinating, and thought provoking at this moment?

This week I interviewed art critic Li Xianting, as well as my main subjects Su Xinping and Xia Xiaowan. I’m driving my project at full speed now, with my luxurious grant-supported research time dwindling away. I’m finding that instead of being concerned with historical documentation of China’s changing society, or investigating artists’ political and market influences, or even trying to capture life in Beijing for American audiences, my greatest interest is to explore the meaning of art in an uncertain world.

Li Xianting says he has finally understood that art is the process of creating something that deeply and authentically expresses the artist as an individual. Imagination and pluralism are his faiths. Once a work of art has been completed, he says, it turns into an object over which the artist has no control. That is, whether people like it or not, or whether it sells or not, is not relevant to the art—which is the personal creative work that happens before the object is finished. This line of thought helps artists who feel frozen after their work has sold for millions, or has not sold at all. Artists should stop focusing on the fate of the object, he says. They should get back to the process.

Su Xinping says that he has had many dialogs with himself throughout his career, and especially when he has met with new environments that felt incomprehensible. For example, in the1980s he struggled to adjust to city culture after an early life on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia; in the 1990s he struggled to adjust to Western culture when he first traveled to the United States; then when he returned to China, he was stymied by the material culture that had suddenly become dominant while he was abroad. Constantly he has faced himself and asked, “Who am I?” Through his art, he has explored this question. In his current work, he emphasizes that he is rooted in Chinese culture, in which a picture grows from the first brushstroke to the next. It is not fully envisioned in advance. That is, in the process of his painting, he will seek his own truth and bring it forth.

Su Xinping lets each brushstroke, or rag application, guide him to the next.

Su Xinping at work in his studio, February 2016.

This week Xia Xiaowan is in an existential slump. He feels he has no skills or talents to offer society. He can stare out his 14th floor window and look at neighbors walking their dogs in the morning, or he can stare at the lush houseplants in his apartment, and be totally immersed and inactive. The visual worlds he creates with his painting are such a natural extension of his being, that he feels he has not accomplished much. He feels other people, normal people, have skills that contribute to society. I suggest to him that society’s standards for “accomplishment” might be very narrow.


Xia Xiaowan, Legend (传说), 2015, detail. This is a small section of a mural-sized work consisting of 93 sheets of pastel paintings presented side by side.

So, I think my film is really about “Art in Smog”—how through the ambiguities of existence, the lack of clarity of where to go, that art is a process of finding oneself and going forward step by step. This can be a process for an individual, or a society, or the world. It takes imagination and the path is not pre-defined.

2 thoughts on “Art in Smog

    • Done, it’s the new working title! After finishing the first rough cut, I see that it really is about Art *in* (not and) smog.

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