What is art?
Yoyo: How we communicate and express ideas to one another visually. Art can be personal or address bigger subjects. When the subject is more personal, there’s often more honesty and clarity on the purpose of the project.
Sian: A major aspect of art is the individual’s interpretation of it. For some, a piece may be amazing; others may hate it. There can be political or social meanings rather than just emotional ones. Society needs art; it’s the basic building block of culture.
Do you think you can feel when art is “honest”?
Ben: I can tell when it’s made to impress the audience, and not for the artist themselves. Some work looks direct, free, and original, and some constrained. If the piece is tight, planned, and controlled or imitates the work of others – like a reproduction – I can’t get anything from it.
Andrew: Every time I go to 798, I see pink pigs and pink Mao Zedong everywhere – what is that? That’s not Chinese art; it’s a lack of individuality, artists obviously recreating the same old images.
What makes good art?
Ben: A baby’s drawing is the purest: careless and carefree. They express what they are feeling. What is the difference between robots and humans? I think the crux of it is art – creating and evoking emotion, thought, and self-awareness.
Yoyo: Yes, innocence within the picture. But it’s also about how it resonates with the audience. If you express something and people don’t receive it, then you’ve lost the point of the whole project.
Do you think training interferes with the artist’s creativity?
Yoyo: The Chinese system focuses on realism taught step-by-step. My mother was against putting me into academic drawing classes before high school because she thought that system was counteractive to imagination. When you’re older and your mind is formed, training can release creativity.
Andrew: I used to attend Tsinghua Middle School until my parents, who are both artists, switched me to an international school. Artists are trained in all traditional techniques in Chinese schools. Harrow’s art program is different – you can just jump to oil if that’s what you want. Chinese students are trained to copy their teacher; it can suck up and destroy imagination if they stay within the limits. When my father [Tsinghua professor Wei Xiaoming] first visited Harrow, he found the art rooms fascinating. He said the ideas – though not necessarily the quality – were better than those of some Master’s students.
Sian: I don’t think creativity can be taught, but you can help with the inspiration that leads to creativity.
Ben: Training is the brush, creativity is the paint. You cannot take them apart.
Should art be realistic or beautiful?
Ben: A stone in isolation is ugly. But what if you saw it on the mountain? People viewing art don’t think about context. They see the stone; they don’t see what it can achieve when it’s in its right place. Modern art needs a different kind of reading. If an artist changes their mind because of the audience’s criticism … it is catastrophic for art.
Andrew: Modern art is conceptual; mostly it’s not about technique. People talk about ideas, not methods. It’s a significant break from the past.
Sian: Society makes fun of modern art: “Splash paint on a desk and you can call it modern art.” Mocking is a reaction to not understanding. But it’s the artist’s job to convey their idea; it’s not the audience’s fault for not understanding.
Yoyo: Art exists to communicate an idea, not just to be aesthetically pleasing. Society is more secular than the artist. The artist stands on a higher level. It’s important for artists to communicate with each other. Artists [can]minimize the gap in communication between the audience and the work by observing the lives of ordinary people, and using ideas and imagery that are familiar and [relatable].
Do you think art should tell a story?
Sian: The artist doesn’t have to start off with an idea or a story. But inevitably they are going to leave a part of themselves in each piece. There is a footprint you can’t get rid of. They may not want it or notice it, but it will still be there: a time in their life, an event they were going through.
Andrew: When I create a piece, I personally think about the topic, theme, and ideas, but art doesn’t have to have a narrative. Many pieces are untitled.
Can any image take on meaning if you look at it for long enough?
Andrew: Anything in life, if taken and placed in a gallery can be artistic. Installation artist Laure Prouvost, the Turner Prize winner, showed a table with tea things. I don’t get it, but if I visited the gallery I would understand it more. Sometimes in art, you have to break the structure or the rules to succeed.
Yoyo: [Marcel] Duchamp’s toilet was the first piece to provoke that kind of reaction. People were shocked and horrified. If you don’t get emotionally attached, there is no time for meaning to develop.
Which is more important to the quality of the piece: ideas or techniques?
Yoyo: They’re equally important. In our discussion so far, we have tended to favor ideas, but actually if you can’t achieve visually then you’ve failed.
Sian: I think the execution is slightly more important. Anybody can have ideas; an artist controls the way they put it out there. There’s interplay between technique and idea; each technique gives a different meaning. For example, a delicate, fragile technique versus wide brush strokes.
Which is more important when deciding on meaning, the artist’s intention or the viewer’s response?
Andrew: One of my father’s works is second on a list of the top ten ugliest sculptures in China. He was irritated at first, but he moved past it and now he ignores people’s comments. I think that’s what an artist should do in the face of criticism: continue being true to yourself.
Ben: Ignore both the artist and the audience. It’s good if their interpretations meet, but it’s not necessary.
When you go to an exhibition, do you read the exhibition notes?
Ben: I like to see the exhibition before I read anything. Once I’ve read the notes, I have expectations and my interpretation is limited. Who determines if an artist is good or not? It’s all subjective.
Sian: I’m like Ben; I look at the art and play a guessing game. I don’t want to forget what I’m thinking, but I like to know what the artist intended. Sometimes the beauty of art is the contrast of interpretations.
Yolo: I ignore the bio completely. I don’t care where the artist was born. I look at the central thesis first. Usually I won’t understand it, so I’ll go see the work and come back to read it again. Ideally [my interpretation and the artist’s intention]meet. By myself, I might be slightly off-track.
This article originally appeared on p48-49 of the beijingkids May 2014 issue. Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com