Liang Ban in conversation with Bao Dong

de Sarthe Gallery, Beijing, China
Liang Ban in conversation with Bao Dong

On the occasion of Landscape Browser at de Sarthe Gallery in Beijing, Liang Ban will be in conversation with Bao Dong, a critically acclaimed independent Chinese curator for the “new generation” artists. Landscape Browser highlights Liang’s complex and celebratory representation of what a landscape means in a contemporary context. The thematic focus of the interview disentangles the relationship between the natural, the artificial and the manmade, and how the human beings have drastically redefined the concept of a ‘landscape’ throughout history. Read the transcript below:  

00’00”-00’10” Bao Dong (BD): To say the truth, I feel like the work entitled ‘Stars’ plays a central role in this exhibition, am I right?   00’11” Liang Ban (LB): That’s correct.  

00’12”-00’32” BD: Because I have been following your exhibitions and your works for many years now where you primarily extract the stars from national flags, and then slowly fade away everything surrounding them into a black background leaving only the patterns of the stars at the forefront. What is the inspiration behind this work?  

00’33”-02’14” LB: I am particularly interested in the stars on national flags. I tend to study and incorporate things that I find fascinating, and eventually it becomes a repetitive process, even though I don’t always know where to start. One day, I realized that I quite like presenting the stars just by themselves. National flags convey a unique symbol for each country. Stars are also symbolic as they are a part of nature. Flags contain a lot of information about human beings, a nation, or even as far as representing the symbol of a nation, it ultimately comes to represent the entire planet. In this absence of all this information, we will all be living in an equal space. Let’s take for instance, the distance between Africa and the United States, Cuba and the United States. Through the process aforementioned, we can only convey our expressions through the image or our concepts.  

02’15”-03’26” BD: In regards to the stars on flags, they are very time specific. In other words the presence of flags are contemporary with the emergence of national sovereignty. Thus stars are a something natural. Historically, we have been depicting stars with five-points as a common representation for a very long time. However, this representation has become a radical and revolutionary symbol in recent history. Some countries have not undergone any revolutions, such as the United Kingdom, hence there are no stars represented in its national flags. China and the United States are prime examples of countries that fought for independence and subsequently adopted the stars to symbolize such strength. When we discuss stars, it is not merely something from nature, but it has grown to become a cultural symbol.  

03’28”-04’30” LB: Absolutely, the stars on flags are a symbol, when we fade away the elements of the flags except the stars in a night sky background it becomes a natural thing again. While looking at the artwork, it becomes harder to distinguish whether this is the flag of the United States, China or Cuba. Fundamentally, we are striving to emancipate ourselves.  

04’31”-04’57” BD: Alternatively, are you saying that an artist who plays a role in society, your mission is to limit the stars as a symbol on the surface of artworks and in texts. In fact, your use of flags has strong political connotations, in which you attempt to discover and pose questions on a conceptual level.  

04’58”-05’15” LB: I am trying to remove as many political connotations as it can to reduce a potential confrontation.   05’16”-05’20” BD: Are there the stars of the Brazilian flag present here?  

05’21” Yes, they are.  

05’21”-06’10” BD: These ones, right? Because I remember that the Brazilian flag actually represents a portrayal of stars in the sky rather than a symbolic one. It was based on a photo taken at dawn on the first day of independence. It is very interesting to know that the print of the flag was based on that photo taken in 1889, the day of Brazil’s independence.  

06’11”-06’50” BD: In this exhibition, we have played a lot with a certain power. Let’s take a look at the artworks Stars (fánxīng: starry sky), or "stars" (qúnxīng: group of stars). Although what we are seeing are real stars, we are seeing things in an indirect way. We live in an era where our viewing senses are inevitably affected by the omnipresence of media. How we view something requires a specific method, depending if we are viewing monitors, mobile phone etc.  

06’51-07’19” LB: It does indeed affect our lives, for example when you look at the Chinese national flag you will think of China in an instance, it’s a type of a classification, a structure, and so now I’m eradicating such a structure.  

07’29”-07’47” LB: There is something I would like to ask you, the stars on the Brazilian flag were taken from the first morning of independence, right? Is it a Brazilian or even a South American belief that stars are signs of the start of a new era?  

07’49”-08’40” BD: There have always been stars in the sky, this is why I think symbolizes the symbiotic relationship between mankind and the stars. Historically, we have used the Big Dipper to determine the north, to read horoscopes, to differentiate seasons, etc. The natural existence of stars parallels the natural existence of mankind. We regard our planet in terms of stars, with the solar system, natural laws and spatial orientation stars, which are all dependents on this constant determinant.  

08’42”-09’45” LB: These are scientific principles, the incorporation a starry sky, even a night sky, will continue to be present in my future works. My understanding is that this is a universally shared concept, in which the sunlight, night, moonlight can all be seen and enjoyed by everyone. But no one can possess it; rather it is equally shared amongst us, just like skinny-dipping in the ocean without claiming proprietary ownership. The sea can sometimes appear very calm or very angry but it all depends on how you experience it. This gives an opportunity of reflecting of our current society, our interpersonal, inter-government and international relationships.  

09’46”-10’56” BD: In this exhibition, there are many ideas and logics behind each of the works. Our relationship with nature has been drastically altered. In fact, I feel like today's relationship with nature is no longer ‘natural’. Just a while ago the director for this interview said that he wanted to shed more light on the set to make it more natural. This is rather interesting, because what is considered ‘natural’? Is there anything of crude nature, like the ocean, the sky? Another example: air. The upside of the serious ongoing haze issue in Beijing is that everyone bears the same burden, regardless of your wealth or your powers, we are all breathing the same air, and this is a type of democracy. And that being said, how much is left of natural things? Most of our time we are in contact with nature through an intermediary, a medium, a media, a method of viewing, people, right now what separates us from nature is something we call “culture”.  

11’03-11’44” LB: The backgrounds are of natural sceneries. Good artists in ancient times were living in isolation in forests or in mountains. In some ways, they have detached from society at large, but this is the trajectory to become masters. Even today you can still feel the richness of their artistic conceptions at the time.  

11’45”-13’37” BD: You talk about people going in seclusion in mountains during ancient times, I remember these hermits from the Confucius era. Confucius categorized two types of hermits: the cynical type who ostracized themselves from society and the type who did so in order to embark on the Zhongnan Shortcut. This is how it was done during the Tang dynasty. Once you reached the Zhongnan Shortcut you become a hermit, which then translates into a cultural identity. Moreover, even in many ancient Chinese landscape paintings, we see themes of specific ‘landscapes’ like Yúyǐn or Jiāoyǐn (literally: ‘Hidden fisherman’ and ‘Hidden suburban’), which have become a symbol of the primitive life and landscape. Subsequently our naïve way of life has become a culture. When you bring up a landscape, my mind instantly conjures up an image of a landscape from a desktop or mobile phone background. It no longer is a memory that we have universally shared, not even as a photographic memory of a certain tourist site that we have seen somewhere. Our memories of a landscape ultimately bear no relationship with the humankind. Which sometimes prompts me to ask, “What is a landscape after all?” Today, our use of ‘landscape’ is taken for granted, but in reality landscape and nature, reality and authenticity are completely disconnected with each other.  

13’37”-14’44” LB: What you talk about actually questions your current concept of natural landscape. Why do you question it? Because we have reinforced a cultural property on landscapes. As I present in the show, Mount Rushmore, which was formerly a mountain before 4 gigantic presidents’ busts were sculpted by humans. It is no longer natural scenery but a cultural site created by men, a lucrative attraction where people come to take pictures that indirectly has an impact on the order of our society.  

14’46”-15’03” BD: We can find many examples of this practice even in ancient history of cliff carving, sculptures or monuments, with figures or big inscriptions carved on them, it is a part of what Marx called the ‘Human Nature’.  

15’03”-15’06” LB: This is the nature of power possession.  

15’09”-15’20” BD: When we redefine nature, it has already become humanized, it is no longer natural. The key is the relationship between human and nature.  

15’23”-15’43” LB: This is why the backgrounds of my works are purely natural, natural sceneries, forests, sky, rivers, without any traces of man-made destruction.  

15’44”-16’15” BD: Because once you transpose these pictures onto our mobile phones or onto the search engines in large amounts for example, they are reduced to nothing but desktop pictures or dynamic screensavers. Today, landscape has become a leisure culture, sometimes with a little layer of environmental protection.  

15’16”-16’21” LB: Reduced to be the backyard of the middle-class.  

16’22”-18’28” BD: It can be a consumption good. You can see it as pictures, you can see it as tourist attractions, that’s the status quo. But when we are confronted with landscape itself, it has transformed into something that can be viewed, other than the aforementioned sculpted Mount Rushmore and the carved cliffs in China that are obvious visible example. But in fact, we have not proceeded towards a direct modification of nature. For instance grasslands have not been modified, but we continue to treat it as a viewing object. We have seen the Inner Mongolian grassland as well as the Bashan grassland outside Beijing, which are reminiscent of the earlier Windows XP desktops. Also, and this is something I mentioned in the exhibition foreword, when we look at a landscape, our first reaction today is to capture it in our mobile phones because we see it as a viewing object, we have a very specific and harsh relationship with nature. For instance, if one was to not bring anything to Bashang grassland, how long could one survive? The grassland has become our competitor, our object of dependency, and our relationship with nature is no longer the same as the prehistoric times, not even equivalent to the relationship between a farmer nature, because they genuinely respect nature in order to survive. We are in a modern, urban, digital era, and our relationship with nature has become one of a complete imagination. We can call this imaginary relationship a culture, we can also say it is a state of natural separation, then it becomes a consumption good.  

18’29”-19’06” LB: We can also think of space, location and landscape as one tri-dimensional relationship. It is a structure that can be activated from different angles: if a place is designated as a specific location, then the space of this place must already host certain practices. For example, the transnational waterfall in my hometown: the water comes from China but the water falls in Vietnam.  

19’09”-19’26” BD: Yes indeed. Aside this aspect of national boundaries matter, why did you choose to use Mount Rushmore as your landscape?  

19’32”-20’12” LB: In fact, I only saw this specific monument on the Internet but I found it really interesting. It made me wonder why these people were carved in the mountain, perhaps to be immortalized?  

20’14”-20’49” BD: I believe it was due to commercial reasons. It was a local project for a national park to draw in tourists, but it has no political strings. It is indeed now a location of strong expression of patriotism, especially in the post American Civil War period.  

20’50”-23’25” LB: Given what you have said about the mountain being built for commercial purposes, once the activities are exhausted, many people see this place as a noun, The Four Presidents Mountain. My artwork wants to turn this noun into a verb, instead of simply providing a leisure viewing. Our thematic identities in society will gradually take shape. The title of this work is Evening Rambles (literally: Dusk Rambles). There is almost a very carefree sensation while we ramble during dusk. If you place it with something political, it relates back to an aforementioned concept. I don’t want people to solely focus on the political concept, my original intention was to create something simple for the audience. That includes me placing a bird on top of the work. Since birds fly high up, they often find a resting spot on top of a mountain rock, therefore placing the bird on top of the Four Presidents: it is where it belongs. That is the justification behind the placement of the bird. The title Evening Rambles is taken from Thomas Pringle’s poem of the same title, which it recounts British colonists who had the freedom of strolling in the colonial landscapes. The poem recreates the artist’s casual ramble in his own garden in his new settlement in South Africa.  

23’34”-25’06” BD: So Evening Ramble is the title of one of his poems. What I find interesting with this poem is how a Brit saw South Africa from his perspective as his new hometown. This type of perspective embodies a gaze in which we are unable to truly appreciate the landscape. Landscape has thus become a cultural construct. In this sense, this viewing mode always carries a variety of concepts, whether it is political, colonial or even cultural. We are consuming a landscape like we are viewing it from a postcard. Consequently, landscape has never been something fixated, we have never clearly defined whether if something is considered a landscape or not, landscape has always been constructed, which is why we see The Four Presidents Mountain as a landscape. This mountain can be considered as an artwork, it is manmade, we can also consider urban settings as a landscape.  

25’06”-25’24” LB: As I have never been to Mount Rushmore, it has always been an imaginary place. Through this artwork, I wanted to incorporate this imaginary landscape into reality.  

25’26-25’34” BD: What I am most interested in, is why you decided to use such crude plasterboards?   25’35”-25’54” LB: I wanted to create a contrast. Presidents are conceived as serious, formal, and wood panels are the most basic and mundane construction materials, which are also used to build slums.  

25’55-26’22” BD: The key is that you can see this material everywhere, those panels in my opinion are something obscure, it is not entirely made out of wood nor entirely covered with wood, it is a prefabricated material, a semi-finished good, it is half natural, half man-made.   26’23”-26’30” LB: Compressing the natural and the manmade.  

26’31”-26’34 BD: It seems like the whole world is using those panels.  

26’34”-26’36” LB: Yes, mostly in slums.  

26’38”-26’41” BD: Also a lot of furniture.  

26’42”-26’53” LB: Sometimes when we use these wood panels, we would cover with a layer of refined material, like cloth. It is maybe the most basic construction material.  

26’53”-26’59” BD: For sure, it is something fundamental that we often overlook in reality.  

26’60”-27’06” LB: This wood panel is closer to our reality.  

27’07”-28’10” BD: Just like today we define tap water as a kind of water. When we say water, we think of tap water, which is something that has been processed. One of the works in the exhibition, entitled “Hole”, brings us an adventurous sensation. Your use of a landscape here is different in comparison with Evening Rambles, The Earth Magician series and even the photos you took on your phone. The structure of this work is composed of a natural hole and a totally artificial product: a Coca-Cola can. As the camera slowly close up to the hole, this can quickly flies away, nonetheless we are still able to identify it as a Coca-Cola can. With this object, the hole has become something natural, it sums up the overall composition.  

28’11”-29’15” LB: I view your artworks from a lower socioeconomic status perspective, including “Hole”. I see a scavenger finding a can of coke. The Coca-Cola can as a universally recognized item in the world as well as the sound “clang clang clang” coming out from the inside of hole which only makes you imagine how deep this hole might be, is a metaphor of how we rely on our hearing senses to identify objects, what we see is just a surface in an instant without knowing the content inside.  

29’16”-32’09” BD: Also, we have all thrown cans before. However, the camera’s close-up of the hole creates a new way of gazing. What I would like to discuss isn’t the significance of what you express but rather the language of composition. It is a gaze, a process that is typical horror genres, it is a foreshadow. When the film director emphasize on a specific part of the scene, he/she creates a close up filled with an unknown significance for the audience to anticipate. In this film, we do not know what this hole is, we hear a sound, then an object flies out and finally completing the narrative. At this point, the audience shifts their attention onto the protagonist, the Coke can, but what becomes of the hole? The hole becomes a background, a meaningless existence, even to some extent, something fearful and anxious. The time you wait gives you anguish because you are facing a hole. The first time I saw this hole, I felt a bit scared and anxious. What is crucial of this hole is its structure. Once immersed inside, the hole represents our idea of nature and the can becomes what we consider as culture. One is barbaric, one is civilized, one is manmade, one bears no relationship with the humankind, one is non-human, this is the kind of relationship established between the two objects. This work has made it difficult for us to explain the thematics of this exhibition. Landscape serves as an agency to critically investigate the relationship between nature and us. Since the exhibition is called Landscape Browser, we view the landscape through a layer of medium that acts as an agency. In the series The Earth Magician In your paintings, the use of spray-cans and graffiti style expressions brings us back to a political symbol, the same time in which flags and territories are formed.  

32’10”-33’41” LB: In this work I compressed all the information onto this map. I chose to use a raised relief map accurately depicts the world giving realistic data despite its scaled down ratios. After free style spraying the map labels with graffitti, I want to summarize our reality in an abstract manner. The original map shows borders, whereas my map shows delicate graffitti flowing through the broders. The frame and the wall around the map are both borders. The graffitti itself is a symbol of an act of freedom and to enable a frivolous behaviour. As I spontaneously traversed between borders, with this technique, it enables a free action, becoming a symbol of freedom.  

33’42”-34’02” BD: Graffiti today is also considered as a form of art. As a cultural phenomenon, do you think see graffiti as rebelling against the norms?  

34’04”-34’16” LB: Absolutely, I could have also used paint and brush but graffiti inherently possesses an act of freestyle.  

34’31”-35’51” LB: I see this work as some sort of standard. For instance, the GPS tracking in our phones can instantly map out our destination. So this is how we plan our urban lives. It is becoming a sort of life-planning in a city. That feeling when you were too shy to ask for direction is banished.  

35’54”-36’16” BD: In the 90s, navigation systems and electronic maps did not exist. We did have maps back then, I believe maps came out quite early. We probably didn’t have to draw maps by our hands but we had a good image of a map in our minds, we can probably estimate the distance of a location. Is there a space without maps?  

36’23”-36’34” LB: The space you are referring to map is the core of this work.  

36’35”-36’43” BD: There are no concepts behind maps, maps is the product of man and earth, hence we call it a map or a globe.  

36’45-36’49” LB: What is artificial has already been set in advance.  

37’13”-37’54” LB: There are two doors at the gallery. Evening Rambles essentially splits the gallery into two halves. You will see the same view from whichever door that you enter from. The positioning of the phones depends on sunrise (daytime scenario) and sunset (night time scenario), this is the content inside the mobile phones. In fact, the composition of the work is half of the overall concept.  

37’57”-38’52” BD: Since there are repetitions on both sides of Evening Rambles, the picture we see today will be the same as tomorrow, it is a copy, it’s just an image, it’s not real, and there no way it can be replicated. Now about the stones and the cellphones, we can relate them with iPhone and iPod products, they are the high point of artificial products or at least representatives of it. They are at the center of this exhibition as well at the pivotal point of the relationship between humans, culture and nature. You also did some alterations on the stones on which is the core subject of this exhibition.  

38’55”-38’18” LB: The phones fit very well inside the stones, a very advanced and sophisticated item paired with a very primitive natural object.  

38’20”-39’34” LB: Let’s talk about the topic of Landscape Browser.  

39’36”-42’20” BD: Let’s start with the relationship between man and nature since landscape is the primary theme of your work. Whether it is the sky or the stars, a hole, an image of Mount Rushmore, maps, all these elements create a landscape which in fact refers to a natural culture, a place that has nothing to do with human beings can not be called a landscape. A landscape is a place that is being viewed. So this exhibition is about this delicate and subtle friction between human and nature, but mostly about how man creates nature and how nature affects us. Landscape just happens to be constructed in the midst of this two-way relationship. Hence I say landscape is not something profoundly established, it is something to be viewed. If a primitive person saw a forest, he/she would not see it as a landscape, instead it is a hunting site. The forest is seen as a functional site. However, today we have an observational relationship with landscape because our relationship with forests is no longer the same between a wood logger and the forest, between a huntsman and the forest, it is parallel that of a tourist and the forest. Basically, we live in a tourist mode, especially true in today’s communication culture using Internet and videos, it is an era of much indirect media. There may be many places that we have not explored but we have surely have browsed through many photos of them. While we are browsing, we tend to see people post photos of their travels online, especially of natural landscapes. What is interesting is how the crossroad between travelling and landscapes becomes a ceremonial moment celebrating aesthetics. Once we take a photo for souvenirs, we send it to our friends, instantly transforming the landscape in a cultural trope. Overall, landscape browsing has become the most common way of viewing photos.  

42’22”-42’59” LB: So it is very close with reality. With the rise of the middle class in China, there are more travels in the Southeast Asian region. These landscapes will affect a country’s structure levels, that is to say, landscape can affect the progress of cities.  

43’00”-43’26” BD: Absolutely, the more these so-called “urban culture” develop, the higher the demand for landscape. That is the status quo of today’s tourism industry. With this large number of industrial and urban sites, then we are willling to protect these natural landscapes, which is a typical dual structure.  

43’32”-43’47” LB: Nature is something that can be equally shared. Yet now a lot of places have been framed into a designated scenic spot, where you have to spend money to access.  

43’49”-43’59” BD: The thing is that it seems we have to go there to enjoy it, the nature in front of us does not feel like a landscape, therefore there is a specific meaning behind landscape.  

43’60”-44’51” LB: This exhibition aimed at showing landscape. They strive to convey our survival modes as well as the individual’s transformation. It is not a revolutionary transformation, but a socioeconomic transformation venturing towards the outside world. I believe that in China, we will see many middle-class move to the rurals to live because it will become a luxurious consumption behaviour.  

44’52”-45’00” BD: To be in a close contact with nature has become a new way of consumption.  

45’00”-45’30” BD: Then my last question is, what is your attitude towards this this inevitable or at least what you consider to inevitable trend? Because I don’t explicity see your criticism or even any mockery, you present more of a dramatization of this phenomenon, or a way to present and propose a discussion around this question without giving your direct opinion about it.  

45’31”-46’16” LB: I don't think it’s necessary to give an obvious statement. As an artist, I just provide a topic of discussion and some angles of reflection and interventions. I relate something, a phenonmenon, that I observed but I alone cannot to solve this question. There is no need to worry, society as a whole will evolve and find its own perfect structure.