Wang Jiang: When did you you make your way to New York?
Chen Dongfan: It was October 2014.
Wang Jiang: Close to Halloween, right?
Chen Dongfan: C: That’s right, I still remember the scene. The thick, mischievous draw of windows through Williamsburg, Brooklyn; people on the streets dressed up as all kinds of zombies, ghosts and ghouls; Inna and myself dragging our luggage through the thick of it all. It was in the midst of such an unusual atmosphere we began our life in New York City.
Wang Jiang: This reminds me of a famous line from A Native of Beijing in New York: “If you love him, then send him to New York, it’s heaven there; and if you hate him, then send him to New York, it’s hell.”
Chen Dongfan: That’s it precisely. I’ve found New York most fascinating ever since. It’s a place where dreams accrue; alluring but at the same time indecipherable, even somewhat cruel in places.
Wang Jiang: What were you doing before you went to New York?
I graduated from the China Academy of Art in 2008 filled with ideals about what it was I wanted to do. Within three months I was fortunate enough to bump into Inna who was making preparations to open the gallery at the time. In the four years after I continued with the Inna Art Space as an exhibiting artist, two of those wherein I also functioned as creative director for the space. That brings us to 2014, prior to my leaving Hangzhou and when I finished working at the gallery. The seven years I spent working in Hangzhou were very happy and allowed me - with art as a premise - to mix with a vast number of artists, designers, musicians, film-makers and academic friends. All of them continue to make outstanding contributions in their
Wang Jiang: If I’m not mistaken there still weren’t all that many galleries in Hangzhou at that time. In my personal understanding there are a great many exceptional young artists in Hangzhou, yet the state of the industry there still isn’t quite what it ought to be.
Chen Dongfan: That’s right. A lot of artists graduating from the CCA (China Academy of Art, Hangzhou) relocate to Beijing or Shanghai. But there are also many that choose to remain in Hangzhou who are also working in really great ways, finding for the stepping stones toward realizing their respective ideals. Prior to my leaving for New York I learned a lot by way of my work, things which inevitably influenced and nourished this. From having made art in public space throughout my twenties, at thirty I returned to the studio to focus on my practice in earnest, two years after which I went to New York.
Wang Jiang: I’m also a Hangzhou native and first became aware of you and your work by way of the murals you made on the city’s streets. It must have been around 2010 and the event was also covered by the media. You studied public art at the CAA, right? Do you have any stories from your student days you’d like to share?
Chen Dongfan: That’s not entirely correct. I was in the department of Total Art. We all called it Studio Number 3 at the time. Whilst attending dutifully to their tutorial duties, a number of the department’s faculty were also of considerable standing in the contemporary arts. My classmates were all very active in their thinking and everyone was really thirsty for knowledge. Thinking back on it, that kind of academic environment was really quite amazing. It’s a shame that at that time all I felt was pressure and anxiety, ultimately deciding to take time out in my second year.
Wang Jiang: What was it made you worry? Did you go back? Who taught you?
Chen Dongfan: The anxiety came from within me, my still having been also somewhat at a loss when it came to the subject of contemporary art. I spent my gap year loafing around. After I returned to campus, Professor Guan Huaibin had been assigned responsibility for our studio having just returned from Japan. I studied installation with him whilst working with Gao Shiqiang on video. My graduation work however consisted of four large-scale paintings. In the end the faculty was all very forgiving and allowed me to graduate without a hitch. I’m still incredibly grateful even now. Albeit he never taught me, Professor Yang Fudong also had an encouraging influence on me and I thought of him as a mentor all the same. I met him again not long after graduating at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing where he said, “One needs to be grounded when it comes to art; every footfall is but a small step on a long march.” I still remember this vividly, even though it hadn’t been addressed to me directly. We became friends later on and every time we meet his perspectives on my latest work always seems to open new doors; his criticism is very incisive. Each of us is working towards our respective goals and he’s proven an endless source of encouragement for me, as a friend and as a mentor, meaning I never dare get lazy with my work.
Wang Jiang: Albeit your major itself was very multifaceted, why was it your practical interests focused consistently on painting?
It’s most likely a leaning I developed in childhood. When I was little, I was praised by my father for a series of illustrations I made from The Legend of Warrior Yue Fei on a cardboard box for Chinese liquor. After that nothing would stop me. I would pick up my brush to make a painting whenever there was a holiday or if an elder relative was celebrating their birthday. When I was a little older, I found studying painting formally was a way to escape from the humdrum of high school life. It was thus I settled to leave my hometown and set out on the road towards an artistic vocation. When I started at the CAA, I was confused by the outlandishness of contemporary art. Painting gave me the first sense of creating for myself alone. Through the course of my life, painting has offered me a harbor of sorts, ported in which I can rest and heal; revel and contemplate. It opened up a whole new world for me. Albeit my work exists in multiple forms and upon a variety of supports, beneath these there’s nevertheless an essential consistency, a painterly spirit. Something about innocence and freedom, feelings, the potential of spirit and
Wang Jiang: Rooftop was the last work you made before leaving China. Beyond its surface there is a kind of conceptualism, perhaps something connected with your educational background. I previously heard you give cursory introduction to the means of this work’s production, some of it originating in the OōEli complex itself. Could you possibly give a few more specific details on the situation at that time?
Chen Dongfan: I remember the summer of 2014 when Wu Tian from the art museum took artist Yi Lian and I to see the site for what would become the OōEli. The proprietors were preparing to arrange an exhibition on the site, inviting a number of artists from the Hangzhou area to each contribute a work. They had wanted me to make a piece of graffiti specifically. It was that year I had gained a certain level of prominence through my work in public spaces. Albeit throughout it all I foregrounded the notion of “painting in space”, I was nevertheless misapprehended as being a graffiti artist.
Wang Jiang: It seems at that time you weren’t willing to accept being assigned the role as a graffiti artist.
Chen Dongfan: If I look at it now, my qualms about such an identifier were a rebellion in a youthful kind of way. As a result, when the curator asked me to create a graffiti work for the OōEli site, I decided to exhibit these colorful Rooftop, a dialogue with the architecture. The series retained form and color alone. At that time I intended to make this my last work before leaving China, hence it is quite significant for me.
Wang Jiang: But didn’t this work diverge somewhat from what the organizer had requested?
Chen Dongfan: That’s right. As was perhaps to be expected, the curator had indeed wanted a piece of graffiti. I thus withdrew from the exhibition and the work was never exhibited. Now it seems in the blink of an eye, seven years have already passed. The OōEli complex premises are already finished. Now the same sits on the floor of the exhibition hall and when night falls, it can be seen reflected in the glass facade, the colored rooftops appearing as if suspended in the park beyond the window. It’s an exhibition I waited seven years for and finding myself in the midst of it is like standing in the passages of time.
Wang Jiang: Seven years have passed and you’ve now returned to Hangzhou from New York. Now this work is exhibited in OōEli. It seems somehow as if it was fate. What was the impetus for your moving to New York and deciding to work and live there?
Chen Dongfan: In the summer of 2011, my good friends Candida Höfer and Herbert Giovanni Burkert helped us arrange a trip to New York. It was Inna and my first time there. How one makes one’s way through a city the first time is crucial, still for whatever reason we fell in love with it. After returning to China we spent three years preparing and when the time was right, we flew to New York.
Wang Jiang: It can’t be easy living so far from your country of birth. To give up everything, face up to the unknown, make new friends, learn new rules, start over and get used to a new way of life. Things like that do take time.
Chen Dongfan: Yes, everything was completely new. In 2016, both of us had to shoulder our fathers’ passing. Hand in hand, Inna and I passed through darkness and pain, and we made our vows in New York City Hall. It’s very easy to live happily as a couple in New York. Having passed my life’s darkest hour, I started to learn to relax; my work also entered a whole new phase.
Wang Jiang: Is there a specific circle catering for Chinese artists in New York? I’d like to know how you all get along in over there?
Chen Dongfan: As it happens we’re not actually all that numerous. In general, we’ve all come into contact with one another at some point in time. Just as new faces arrive each year, people from before also leave. It’s more or less the same as back in China. Some artists will be in college, others getting support from art museums or other organizations, collaborating with a gallery on some projects or otherwise working part time whilst trying to continue with their work… Everyone in New York expresses themselves for themselves, works hard, lives happily and makes the best work they can.
Wang Jiang: Is there any Chinese artist comes to mind who’s a particularly good mixer? Anyone of around your own age?
Chen Dongfan: I’m not fond of this word “mix” as it brings to mind the Chinese proverb “to fix fish eyes with the pearls,” namely to present a sham as genuine, so it doesn’t seem quite fitting.
Wang Jiang: It seems you’re not a great believer in the success principle. How is it you go about navigating local life and culture?
Chen Dongfan: The longer you stay in New York, the less thought you give to issues like “How to navigate local life and culture”. New York is highly multicultural and there’s no one fixed set of values, we’re all just pieces of the puzzle that makes up the city. I have a number of very outstanding contemporaries and we all pull together to support and encourage one another. Take my friends Sun Yunfan and Dave Liang for instance, both exceptional individuals. Their band The Shanghai Restoration Project releases a new album every year and in 2019 we collaborated on two separate improvised performances of live painting and music. Sun Yunfan is also engaged in the visual and culinary arts. The paella they make at their place is the most authentic I’ve tasted in New York to date.
Wang Jiang: I’m curious as to how in such an environment you relate to the work of previous generations’ overseas Chinese artists in America?
Chen Dongfan: For me the previous generations’ Chinese American artists created the folklore of their times. I’ve read some really great stories and when I just arrived in New York used out of curiosity to go from place to place trying to find their traces. Any artist from before would for instance have gone to draw at The Art Students League of New York at some point or another. The school is situated close to Central Park, and I would catch the subway early each morning to visit the studio there. After several months of life drawing, my enthusiasm waned on my realizing that everyone around me was much older. Following that I went back to making work in the comfort of my own home. The more you live here, the more you discover the real legends are right by your side. Everyone has to face up to the here-and-now; to their new work.
Wang Jiang: What’s the relationship like between older and newer generations of Chinese American artists? Is there any interaction? Do you all keep up with each other’s projects?
Chen Dongfan: Not only is there interaction, on top of that we all take care for one another from day to day and we often get together to eat and chat. Mr. Zhang Hongtu for instance, one of the first Chinese artists to come to New York, he still works very prolifically to this day. His head of silver hair contrasting with his neat denim pants, his demeanor is filled with energy and enthusiasm. He often brings his granddaughter along to my exhibitions and Open Studio, just as we too attend dinners at his home in Queens. The espresso made from beans Mr. Zhang grinds himself is really something. Mr. Deqing too is an outstanding artist but is at the same time very low key and modest in his manner of living. He is always very astute and insightful when it comes to art. His opinions are always penetrating. To be with someone who is both a friend and a mentor is most beneficial for me. Albeit Mr. Deqing is not all that fond of social events, these last few years he’s made an appearance at many gatherings in our home. He also shows up at my exhibitions to offer his support. We meet up from time to time and whenever we do so he is sure to say, “There’s not much time so let’s cut to the chase and talk about art.”
Wang Jiang: Mr. Xie Deqing is an artist in the purest sense; truly a legend of his generation. It must be very invigorating to have such a friend in your life. As far as Chinese curators in New York are concerned, what kind of ways do they work in? Is it possible by chance that you tend to interact and work together more because of your shared background?
Chen Dongfan: They mostly work in museums, non-profit structures or galleries whilst at the same time conducting research, writing or planning events independently. I can’t make any general statements about the ways they work because everyone is different. I’m more familiar when it comes to those curators with whom I\\\'ve worked in person. I’ve exhibited quite a bit in New York recently. In January there was Sanctuary at St John’s University in Queens, curated by Wang Xin. After that in October came “Long Dawn, Pirates and Poets Whistling in the Dark” at Brooklyn’s Fou Gallery curated by Hai Liang. These curators are both very exceptional, very hardworking and it’s always a pleasure to work alongside them.
Wang Jiang: I’m not all that familiar with Wang Xin. What projects is it in particular that you’ve worked together on?
Chen Dongfan: Wang Xin is a curator and art historian currently based in New York. She’s currently a doctoral student in the History of Contemporary Art in New York University’s Fine Arts division and is conducting research into the work of Joan Tisch at the Whitney Museum, whilst at the same time also working on organizing a special exhibition focusing on Asian futurism. When I work with Wang Xin the process akin to a kind of “fermentation”. We instantly reached a mutual understanding and hoped the new exhibition would be an adventure of sorts. I set to work on creating something completely new with this in mind. Prior to the exhibition, Wang Xin orchestrated a series of events to take place in my studio, including an improvised collaborative live painting and music performance between myself and The Shanghai Restoration Project, along with a drinks reception in the studio held to present the new work. During the course of this “fermentation,” I painted a new series of works in black and white and completed the public piece “Technicolor Zhongshan Road” in front of a Chinese style pavilion on the campus of St John’s University. After the exhibition opened at the gallery, I realized a further improvised performance together with The Shanghai Restoration Project. The pandemic exploded following this compact event and we were forced to temporarily close the show to the public.
Wang Jiang: So it was the sudden arrival of the virus that drew the exhibition to its premature close? Was there anything you were able to do following as a remedy?
Chen Dongfan: The pandemic made it very inconvenient as far as visiting exhibitions goes and we considered many other options but were unable to do anything about it. The entire New York art world collapsed under the weight of the pandemic. In June last year, together with the team at the venue, The China Institute, Wang Xin orchestrated and oversaw the online discussion “Meet the Artist: Myth as a Contemporary Practice — A Conversation with Chen Dongfan” in which I shared online aspects of my life and work whilst self-isolating in my home during the pandemic. Later, Sanctuary was ultimately extended until August. During deinstallation, Inna, Wang Xin, space director Owen Duffy and myself conducted a small ceremony on the site where - all wearing our masks - we made a toast together inside the sanctuary.
Wang Jiang: Are there any organizations in particular that work to represent and promote the work of Chinese artists?
Chen Dongfan: There are, but not that many. There are a number of non-profit organizations in New York that support and promote the work of Chinese artists. The Chinese People’s Museum of America for instance frequently holds very creative, thematic group exhibitions. There are also some privately run galleries and other spaces, all of them distinct in terms of space and scholarly orientations, the newer, smaller spaces amongst these tending to be more popular with a younger crowd. My friend He Yu has also founded the Fou Gallery, a non-commercial art space.
Wang Jiang: I am aware of the Fou Gallery. All these things are made very convenient by social media, as physical distance doesn’t limit the transmission of information. I will see the content of their exhibitions every once in a while, on my WeChat feed.
Chen Dongfan: Yes, they’re very active and we’ve collaborated on various projects, the 2018 public fixture Song of Dragon and Flower having been supported by the vested energies of both He Yu and Fou Gallery. Fou started as an apartment gallery, refining itself gradually into the space’s present structure, their exhibitions becoming not only more specialized but with them also arranging various performances and events of differing themes as a means to foster interaction with local communities. Fou creates links between different practitioners, taking artists’ work as a point for departure. Albeit these spaces aren’t all that large, they offer a window via which it’s possible for New York to get a glimpse of Chinese artists’ work nevertheless. They have become places where Chinese American practitioners can meet and interact also. For me as a practitioner myself they’re a sort of companion to our times. It’s very important for us to encourage and support one another and as time goes by, what’s left behind will be good art and its narratives.
Wang Jiang: How do foreign practitioners in the industry see your work? Does your identity as Chinese in any way enter into their assessment of its value?
Chen Dongfan: I don’t know, I’ve never asked. Nowadays the issue of “Chineseness” is one very rarely discussed by Chinese artists. My work doesn’t go out of its way to foreground questions of identity.
Wang Jiang: Are there any foreign artists with whom you’re particularly close? I’m referring to friends who have had a palpable influence on your life in New York.
Chen Dongfan: My studio is located in Long Island, Queens inside a graffiti scrawled, a three-story factory style block. It was artist Walter Robinson who recommended I set-up there. The first time the two of us met was at the Jeffrey Deitch gallery. In 2016, after newly opening their Wooster Street premises, Jeffrey Deitch organized a retrospective for Walter. It was our good friend Seton Smith who took Inna and I to see the exhibition. We started to become friends following this. One time he took a trip specifically to attend my Open Studio in Sunset Park, stating without mincing his words: “This fucking place is so out of the way, you deserve a studio better than this!” After that I moved into a studio next-door to his. These last few years he’s borne witness to all my New York exhibitions, events and creative fixtures, watching, step by step, as I’ve matured.
Wang Jiang: Walter Robinson. I saw the portrait themed exhibition the pair of you made at Inna Art Space in 2019. I recall that in the introduction to the exhibition, it stated he’s quite an influential art critic in the United States.
Chen Dongfan: That’s right. It was after meeting him I started to look into The Pictures Generation of New York, than to learn the legendary tale of his role as an art critic. In the 70’s, along with several others, he founded the publication Art-Rite, following which he went onto become editor of Art in American, founding editor of Artnet and also worked as a TV journalist. He was also an active member of the artist collective Colab and one of the co-founders of Printed Matter. Until today, aside from having created a staggering body of work, he possess still the passion for artistic media. He’s always first to share the latest items of New York art information and art criticism on his Instagram page and it has become a guide for me detailing all information on art relating to the city. Over the years, we’ve become both friends and mentors to one another. If there’s anything about me even a hint of which represents an American contemporary artist and such artist’s work habits, it’s most certainly due to his influence. Should we happen to run into one another at a weekend opening, he always offers a smiling hug, followed by a: “Hi, kids!” before proceeding to race over to the next show.
Wang Jiang: It seems you have quite a number of older friends in New York.
Chen Dongfan: I guess you’re right. I feel fortunate to have had Robinson incite that I relocate to this studio. Following the move, I also became acquainted with Judith Weller, another of my neighbors whose sculpture sits on the 7th Avenue in Manhattan as a symbol of the New York garment district. She’s already over eighty years old but still drives to the studio to work each day. The first time Judith entered my brightly colored studio she was happy like a child. She was surprised as I was so utterly different from any other Chinese artist she knew of. She promised me that I could always knock on the door of her studio if ever I needed help with anything. Every once in a while she’ll come knock on my studio door to pay a visit. Glancing in from the doorway, she always knows when I’m trying out something new and is always genuinely pleased for me. In 2018 when I made Song of Dragon and Flower in New York’s China Town, the New York Times gave over a whole page over to a personal profile on me. When Judith saw this, she wrote a long email congratulating me. Quite some time after New York lifted its quarantine regulations I still hadn’t been to the studio, then one day, I received another email from her, stating that I really ought to come back to the studio and get back to work.
Wang Jiang: I guess that with a neighbor like that for company you never think to neglect your work… Just now you mentioned Song of Dragon and Flower, does this amount to a small climax of sorts in your New York practice?
Chen Dongfan: Song of Dragon and Flower was a crucial work for me. The fixture was originally an open-call pubic project for the area co-organized by New York City Transit Authority and the Chinatown Partnership to encourage people to travel by public transport and promote travel and enterprise in the area. Sally Hong at ArtBridge had contacted He Yu at Fou stating she earnestly hoped I would participate in the fixture. I however had planned to return to China during summer vacation. Unable to decide what to do, Inna and I went to take a walk along Doyers Street in Chinatown, realizing that one restaurant Candida and Herbert had taken us to when we first visited New York had been there. After a little research, I learned Doyers Street was the oldest street to be home to the city’s Asian community and that it was notoriously given the name “the bloody angle,” with local business owners having to wash away blood stains from the ground at the start of every day.
Wang Jiang: What was it in the area’s history caused such dreadful violence to occur around Chinatown?
Chen Dongfan: That was my question too at the time. Later on, I got to know about the Chinese Exclusion Act that continued for over sixty years, one of the greatest limitations placed on freedom of immigration in American history. I wanted to live up to my word and improvise a work in situ for the project, sketching the street’s spirit, its likeness in colors and brushstrokes. I wanted to take the themes of “love & peace” to bring people’s attention to America’s violent anti-Chinese history, using art to raise awareness of the city’s Asian immigrant communities and their histories.
Wang Jiang: How about the realization process of this work? Was there any response from the community?
Chen Dongfan: My proposal was to create a colossal painting 4,800 square feet in size and stretching the entire 61 meter length of the street, an outdoor work the likes of which had never been seen previously in New York. In the end, the response to the proposal was one of unanimous approval. The eight-day process taken to complete the work attracted the attention of a large number of people, with media including Fox TV, NBC, The New York Times, Time Out and so on, all competing to cover the project. The street thus became arguably the most beautiful piece of scenery to be found in New York that summer in 2018, with a great number of visitors all converging on Chinatown to take photos to commemorate the occasion. The New York City Transit Authority’s statistics show that the project brought an average of 18,000 people to Doyers Street every day, totaling a cumulative volume of around 1 million all in all, a flow of around 111% more than any previous average. Every summer following this, Doyers Street is transformed into a street decked in gorgeous colors, a fixture that continues until this day.
Wang Jiang: How does painting stand in New Yorkers’ estimations? Compared that is with other artistic media. What kind of a position does painting occupy in the art world there?
Chen Dongfan: Painting occupies a unique place in the hearts of New Yorkers and the art spaces here organize a great many painting exhibitions. There are a lot of young artists also who make painting their medium of choice. It’s very important for New York.
Wang Jiang: Do you feel Chinese painters are afforded any leeway for upward motion? Are there any windows for this either you or those around you have managed to locate?
Chen Dongfan: It’s terribly hard to say. But this makes me think of Matthew Wong. He was a self-taught Canadian Chinese artist. He held a solo exhibition at Karma in 2018 to very wide acclaim, an exhibition that had a profound influence upon me also. However, just as he was moving up in the echelons of his vocation, he committed suicide, ending his life. The news that Wong had passed away so soon aroused great distress in the art world. Everyone recognizes he was an artist of considerable talents who, having just passed 35, was simply lost too soon to grip of some terrible condition. Albeit he’d only invested himself fully in his painting practice for some five or six years, he worked tirelessly, leaving behind some thousand or so paintings. One year since his passing, market demand for his works is still rampant.
Wang Jiang: His story seems more or less in line with what most understand as genius. This seems quite callous however. We will never be able to foresee in what way any individual will be affected by their circumstances. Our work as well can never be separated from outside evaluation. What kind of influence has New York’s atmosphere had on your painting?
Chen Dongfan: The pursuit of the purer, more essential spirit of painting, to directly express jouissance in the surface of an image, the implication of the body’s motions in the practice of action painting, my conceptual musings during the making process. Put simply, the free, easy way of life in New York, the refusal to pale from creative experiment here has all been an influence on my work.
Wang Jiang: Has your work been influenced by American artists in any way?
Chen Dongfan: To begin with I was very much influenced by European artists and it was only later I began to look at the work of Americans. I carry with me a very profound image from certain retrospective exhibitions, shows displaying an artist’s life’s work. Louise Bourgeois’ MOMA retrospective for instance got me thinking about what kind of things I wanted to accomplish practically while I’m alive. There are a great many artists whose work has inspired certain of my own new pieces, yet often the impetus for my works doesn’t come from the visual arts. In the studio, whilst immersed in creating the black and white works seen in Sanctuary, I was influenced in part by the improvisational techniques John Cage employed in his music. I listened to The Ten Thousand Things over and over again, researching his modes of composition, at the same time thinking about my own way of working. It was thus that John Cage and Bach came to have an influence on my feelings regarding the visual.
Wang Jiang: There are certain Chinese artists who take coordinates from the canon of Chinese modern art. I would like to know as a Chinese artist in America how you feel about this?
Chen Dongfan: There’s no center, these are no longer times where there exists any right to this in art. An artist can choose for themselves how to move forward. Of course one can use history as a means to give one’s self a practical impetus. But this is but a single way to go and oughtn’t be the only one.
Wang Jiang: In the last few years, there have been quite a number of Chinese artists who have arranged large scale exhibitions in US spaces. What are your thoughts on these exhibitions?
Chen Dongfan: Everyone will go see a good exhibition. I recall Cao Fei and Li Binyuan’s solo shows at MOMA PS1 being very well received, especially Cao Fei’s with the younger crowd. The hiphop collective The Notorious MSG were also invited by artists to New York’s Chinatown to perform in the art museum. Cao Fei also took to the stage to perform, it’s still very vivid in my mind. Last year Guo Fengyi’s first US solo museum exhibition Guo Fengyi: To See from A Distance was shown at New York’s Drawing Center, featuring more than thirty of the artist’s key works. Although influenced by the pandemic, the exhibition was held in high esteem nevertheless. These exhibitions bring us to acknowledge the growing influence of Chinese contemporary art.
Wang Jiang: Let’s talk about your New York studio. Where’s it located? Aren’t artists in America somewhat in the habit of dropping by unannounced?
Chen Dongfan: My present studio is in Long Island City, Queens, not far from MOMA PS1. It’s a high-ceilinged studio with massive windows. Prior to moving in I spent eleven days daubing the entire studio with color and brushstrokes, re-realizing the backdrop to Somerset Maugham’s novel The Moon and Six Pence in New York. It was an attempt to embody a purely spiritual space. I call the studio as a garden and have held there meetings between friends, performances of music and dance, experimental creative projects and so on, gradually allowing mine to have become one of the most dynamic artist’s studios in New York, having even taken the cover space of a local magazine. This studio-centric lifestyle was brought to an abrupt halt by the novel Coronavirus pandemic. A half year’s having passed somewhat uneventfully, I decided to move to a smaller studio upstairs. The day before I white-washed and moved out of my former studio my friend Zhou Tong and his band performed in the space. Still somewhat ill at ease and wearing masks, for the first time in a long time we were able to bear witness to a live music performance.
Wang Jiang: Are there regular social events in the New York art world? Has this equally become a part of your work?
Chen Dongfan: There’s a whole plethora of events take place around the arts here. Not only that, but their respective attendees are not necessarily all quite the same. If one is not careful, it’s east to get lost in the bizarre, motley place that is New York. In 2019 I spent an entire year working on a series of 52 artist’s books. As I had to complete a volume each week I spent the majority of my time in the studio. As a result, I gradually established a distance between myself and all but the essential outdoor pursuits, only really meeting with a small number of friends to catch up at home.
Wang Jiang: I’ve heard you have a lot of experience with residencies and making work on the go whilst traveling. What has this offered your practice?
Chen Dongfan: Going back and forth between places, living far from home, an appropriate level’s strangeness has the function of honing one’s perceptions. It’s a very classical, romantic way of working. A lot of the time, even the best experiences won’t do anything for one’s practice, albeit they might be chicken soup for the soul. In this short life, maybe this is more important.
Wang Jiang: How do you see the relationship between working in public space and working in the studio? How do you balance the two?
Chen Dongfan: At present my work basically develops between space and time. Whereas public pieces are larger in scale and exist within a particular spatial context, work that takes a set support exist in series given to a particular time frame. Whether erupting in space or consuming time, either way the borders between the two are ambiguous. I like to about how if one were to pull away from the two dimensions, what would be left? The same is true of the question regarding the fundamental nature of art. As a result, in my opinion establishing balance here isn’t all that necessary.
Wang Jiang: What are the circumstances of you and others in your industry in the midst of the pandemic as concerns your working and every day lives?
Chen Dongfan: We are all doing the best we can. Many of my friends have left New York. But as long as the sky doesn’t fall we still have to get on with our lives. It was the looting that took place in Soho that left me with the deepest impressions of New York during the pandemic. It’s hard to believe that Soho in 2020 could come to resemble a Hollywood disaster movie in that way, the shops lining the streets all boarded up. Around a week later, artists took to the streets, covering the boarded-up shopfronts with a unique array of artwork, the entire shopping district transforming into a massive gallery. Art once again managed to rekindle peoples hope for life.
Wang Jiang: That’s truly inspiring. It’s things like that allow people to appreciate the power of artists, their sense of social duty. How long will you stay in China this time around? Do you have any plans for your work or to travel at all?
Chen Dongfan: I plan to stay the entire year in China, returning to New York for Christmas time. Regardless of what shifts might occur in my working circumstances or daily life, I will still continue to make. I’m currently participating in a residency at the A4 Art Museum’s International Residency Center and plan to remain a while to work in Chengdu following that. In the interim, I’ll also travel to Beijing, Shenzhen and Shanghai to attend art fairs. As far as travel goes, I guess I make travel my work, haha, allow myself to refresh, after that, I think very soon I’ll switch to vacation mode.
Wang Jiang: You were trained as an artist in China, your partner also has a gallery there. I guess therefore that you have a lot of friends in the industry. Have you visited any of these industry people during your return to China this time? If so what were your thoughts?
Chen Dongfan: My impression is that although everyone’s still working hard they’re not necessarily contented. The art world also proved unable to avoid the turmoils that gripped the nation. Having been back a while now I’m better able to understand the situation. My wife is a very magnetic, warm and caring person and is very fond of interaction and throughout the years I’ve received her constant encouragement and support. Recently I’ve also made the acquaintance of a number of friends not involved directly in the art industry, all of them very rigorously invested in their respective endeavors. They’re all pretty easy to relate to.
Wang Jiang: Just to expand on the subject, what are your thoughts on the state of contemporary painting in China right now?
Chen Dongfan: I think it’s very hard to give any real verdict. Paintings an awkward one, for reason in part of its complexity, that and its providing only a very narrow way in. The fact that so many painters are able to persevere so many years is in itself worthy of respect. Paintings are a thing whose original one has to see in situ, to talk about in concrete terms, if it’s there, it’s there, if not, then it’s not. What it is one wants to say, wants to do, all of that’s in the work, it doesn’t give room for untruths.
Wang Jiang: What’s your experience of the structures of Chinese contemporary art?
Chen Dongfan: Very versatile, economical, efficient; you get to see both sides of the coin.
Chen Dongfan: The exhibition at the OōEli complex functioned as a retrospective for the last few years’ work, what do you feel it left you with?
Chen Dongfan: Today’s OōEli in Hangzhou is a real mirage in concrete, something unbelievable one can nevertheless touch. It’s taken eight years, but the complex has finally been realized and I earnestly applaud Li Lin\\\'s romantic spirit and perseverance. Every time I return to Hangzhou for a solo show it’s a little like going home with your school grades, I always get a little anxious. I was thankful for Zhenning’s invitation, as this exhibition allowed me to meet up again with a number of former classmates and friends whom I hadn’t seen for many years, this made me very happy. The exhibition displayed over a hundred works spanning a period of some seven years or so. The show’s site resembled a park composed of paintings, moving through which one might alter a given scene. The space was organized in a very composed, relaxed way, allowing that one be at ease to observe for an extended time. Every day people would come in their droves to see the show and it was very popular with a younger crowd meaning it went almost viral on the net. This gave me a clear sense of how the times have already started quietly to shift.
Wang Jiang: What do you think are the differences between exhibiting in China and in New York?
Chen Dongfan: In China everything’s very flexible, the civic resources ones afforded are quite plentiful. Everyone pulls together to help one another, there’s a real sense of the human touch. Preparations for the present exhibition were basically completed in a period of about two weeks. We were four close friends working together enthusiastically to get the thing done, stimulating one another’s creative appetites. This work in itself was all very enjoyable. During the period of the show we arranged three discussion forums along with an improvised live painting and music performance, inviting exceptional practitioners from a variety of diverse fields. Every show is for me like planting a see for the future, a kind of romantic idealism that never changes. Everyone was a bit tired but it was all worth it.
Wang Jiang: So what’s next? Do you have any set goals for the next stages of your practice?
Chen Dongfan: Go out to see new things, meet with friends, collaborate, try get myself to make some works that are connected with different cities. I also hope to be able to realize some works in urban public space.
Wang Jiang: Have you ever considered making China your practical base? How long are you planning to remain in New York?
Chen Dongfan: I like being settled and being able to enjoy my work, I hope this will never change. But reality is a drifting unpredictable place, everything’s always very restless. No one can say what will happen in the future, all we can do is focus on the here and now. Up until now my New York studio and our apartment there have just been standing vacant and every month we still have to pay rent so there’s quite a lot of pressure. But at the same time there’s nothing really we can do about it.
Wang Jiang: Should you return to China, where do you think you’d go? Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou?
Chen Dongfan: Shanghai.