Artist interview: Yang Jinsong - Art Collector

18 September 2013

Growing up under a communist regime, Yang Jinsong imbues his paintings with symbols that comment on the development of the China we see today. The expressive nature of and symbolism in Jinsong’s work depicts the anger, fear and injustice associated with that time. His poetic rebellion is incredibly sophisticated and balances cataclysm and peace on a knife’s edge. Lisa Corsi interviewed the artist and gallerist, Evan Hughes following an intimate launch of Jinsong’s exhibition at Ray Hughes Gallery.

Yang Jinsong, Dark Night III, 2008. Oil on canvas, 138 x 113cm. Courtesy: the artist and Ray Hughes Gallery, Sydney

What was your childhood like?

I was born in 1971 during the cultural revolution. These were tough times for all Chinese people. Chairman Mao passed away in 1976. I was five years old at the time and found it incredibly strange that everyone was crying. I couldn’t understand why they were crying for somebody they didn’t know. It is a very strong memory for me and my generation.

How did you experience the 1980s growing up in China?

China opened up economically but not philosophically or politically. There is no struggle for independence anymore because money has made people very comfortable and ultimately very lazy. Our generation was simply victim to very clever government. It was only when I went to live abroad that I was able to perceive what was going on. I gave a great deal of thought to how I could change. I ultimately decided that all I could do was try my best. Do the best that I can for myself as an individual and gradually, hopefully, change those close to me. I can’t change policy. I can’t change the communist party that used the army to kill ordinary people. I still remember 1989. This memory comes through in my work. I can only change myself. But unlike other artists, including my friend Ai Wei Wei, my preferred medium of negotiation is painting. Painting is poetic. It’s a way to understand anger and our feelings and experiences of cruelty. It is also an opportunity transform these into something beautiful. Fewer people understand the subtly of painting.

Yang Jinsong, Home II, 2012. Oil on canvas, 60 x 80cm. Courtesy: the artist and Ray Hughes Gallery, Sydney

There is an incredible sense of tension in the work, particularly in the fish series. The symbolism in the figurative flat paintings are very telling in a different way.

Evan Hughes: The fish series came about at a time when Jinsong was particularly angry. They tell us the story of the complete decimation of landscape for the city. Interestingly however, in later works, those same diggers become a child’s toy. I find these later ‘flat’ paintings to be dealing with what it is like to be middle class. This is a totally new phenomenon, with all the trappings of modern life.

There is a subtle political undertow in Jinsong’s work. They are a form of soft diplomacy that is much more poetic and reflective and they will endure because of it. In 100 years time, people will still be able to read about a particular time in China through these paintings. This is the development of a Chinese art history.

Lisa Corsi

Yang Jinsong's exhibition
Recent Paintings continues until Wednesday 2 October at Ray Hughes Gallery in Sydney.

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