Moving within a Formless, Boundless Universe

Xiang Jing x Michael Kahn-Ackermann, Tr. Daniel Nieh

May 2017

Xiang Jing's Studio, Song Zhuang, Beijing

Starting with the Self
Michael Kahn-Ackermann: I did not sleep well last night. I found myself a bit nervous about today’s interview. I am not sure why I felt nervous, but I can think of three reasons. First: I really like your artwork, which is different from that of other artists. The second reason is closely related to the first. As I understand it, in order to be an artist today, one must begin with the self and rely only on the self. This idea warrants elaboration. When I say self, I do not mean being self-centered or arrogant, and I do not mean individualism. I can explain what I mean with a metaphor. The creative process of an authentic artist is like moving within a formless, boundless, dark universe. This universe has no up and down, no direction, no goal. This is the most fundamental difference between art and scientific research or philosophy. When the artists of the past moved within this universe, they were provided with the basic support and boundaries of God’s plans. The system that supported them was religion. Take, for example, Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), a fifteenth century European master. Regardless of whatever brutality or fear he may have faced, he knew that there was a God-ordained order to the universe: Hell, the mortal world, and Heaven. God provided the ultimate reassurance. He was a source of security and comfort in terrible places. And whether it was Christianity for Bosch or Daoism for Bada Shanren, all artists relied on their religious beliefs. The artists of today have long since abandoned this reliance. They have lost their religious systems and also lost their aesthetic systems. So they can rely only on themselves. And that is scary. Artists face loneliness, fear, and confusion. Without God to direct them, they need more bravery and sincerity. And those are qualities that most contemporary artists lack. They avoid their loneliness, fear, and confusion by creating an individualized system. This is the origin of the conceptual art that is popular today. Their universes are inevitably pallid and narrow, extremely limited. I see these artworks and feel impatient. At best, I understand their intention: they have this idea, they have this concept,