2 May 2015
Bienne, in the studio of artist Mingjun Luo
Musée d’Art de Pully: Mingjun, thank you for inviting us to your studio for this conversation, the first in a series during the run-up to your solo exhibition "Ici et maintenant" (Here and Now), scheduled for the spring of 2016 at the Musée d’Art de Pully. For the event you've decided to create new works and publish a retrospective catalogue.
Mingjun Luo: Thank you, too, for your invitation to show at the museum. And yes, "Ici et Maintenant" is a two-part venture: a publication and a new artistic project.
MAP: You visited China early in 2015. Could you tell us just how this trip helped you shape the exhibition to come?
ML: Something that happened to me during the trip left me shocked and upset, and the outcome was that I used it as a guiding theme for the exhibition. I went to China to look after my parents, who live in Changde, in the northwest of Hunan province, where I grew up. They're retired and have health and financial problems, and I went to their bank to put money into their account. The bank asked me to provide official proof that I
was their daughter, but I didn't have the necessary papers with me.
MAP: Sounds like normal procedure.
ML: Right, but in my case there are complications. I left China for Switzerland in 1987, after my marriage to a Swiss citizen. I was automatically granted Swiss nationality, and had to give up my Chinese nationality. So my official identity document is a Swiss passport in the name of Mingjun Luo Wagner – my married name – and my place of origin is given as Sainte-Croix, where my husband is from. I also had with me affidavits signed by a Chinese state notary, attesting to my maiden name, Luo, my place of origin in China and my family ties. But during the trip I realised that these papers had expired, so I went looking for my birth certificate. Unfortunately that kind of document was rare, not to say simply nonexistent, in China at the time I was born.
MAP: The concept of cultural identity has been a key part of your work since you came to Switzerland. How did this new situation influence your approach?
ML: I'm taking things further. I became aware that until I was twenty-four I had had no official existence. So how was I to testify to my kinship with my parents? What defines my family relationships: a DNA test, memories, an emotional bond, an official document? And what's the role of the state: does the government decide who exists and who doesn't?
MAP: How do you intend to come to grips with these issues and give them an artistic dimension?
ML: I'm planning to go back to China in the autumn of 2015, and explore things pragmatically: by retracing my steps from when I was born to when I left, in the places where I lived and grew up; and at the same time by going into the bureaucratic side in detail. The idea is to keep a record of the administrative procedures I have to go through, film my trip, get hold of all the official papers I can find and build up a collection of images of my life; and then, when I get back, to make an installation, mostly in video, combining the emotional aspect of the family bond – atmospheres, memories, photos – and the unadorned administrative documents.
9 July 2015
Bienne, the artist's studio
MAP: It's been two months since our first conversation. What's the situation so far in terms of what you're trying to do?
ML: For the moment I'm not painting or drawing. I'm working mainly on putting the "Ici et maintenant" catalogue together. This time off from being an artist is letting me distance myself from my work and take a fresh look at my career. I want a book that shows my work from the outset up until now: that means
sorting out my images, retrieving some that I'd put aside, weighing up what ties in with me now and what's meaningful in the continuity of my practice. It's a difficult business, but it's creatively productive and influences my way of thinking.
MAP: How does this detachment change your relationship with your works?
ML: It's making me aware that over these last few months my practice has been getting too literal, too starkly realistic. I'm not completely happy with that: I don't want to see my work reduced solely to its commercial dimension, even if that is also part of the artist's life.
MAP: Is this realisation changing your approach to the voyage coming up this autumn?
ML: Yes, it is. I'd like to start out with an account that's more nuanced, less direct. I want to make a video, but at the same time I'm no documentary filmmaker: I have this urge to go further than a straight portrayal of reality, and that means finding a way of discarding the frontal approach. The aesthetic side of art is important to me: you mustn't try to show reality in the raw; you've got to be selective. My questions have to be latent, and incorporated subtly. All the material I'm going to collect this autumn is a substrate I'll have to take on board and reinterpret. Up until now I've been concentrating on the final result, but
what counts deep down is the way you go about things. My project is to crystallise the process involved.
24 September 2015
MAP: You're going to be leaving for China in two weeks. When we saw each other in August (July ???) you had doubts about some aspects of your approach. Have you been able to fine-tune the way you want to work since then?
ML: My work follows three main paths. These give me a basic structure, but they're not definitive in any way. I'll be mostly using video. I'm thinking first of all of a video that visually illustrates my disappearance from the official record in my home country. Maybe there'll be a computer interface, showing my file literally being deleted – stuck into the recycle bin.
For the second section I want to bring in the idea of the stamp – the seal. On my body, maybe, or on documents. Stamping something is an abrupt, violent gesture. It validates. In traditional Chinese art there's a stamp on every work: it's the artist's signature. it was also the emperor's instrument of authentication. Without a stamp a document is null and void. I'm thinking of a video dealing with this idea, which could maybe then be projected onto a book.
The book is an important object for me: it has a family value – there's a reference to the photo album – and an official value, when you think of a bureaucratic register, for example.
This raises the question of the polarity between the actual images of my past and the state documents.
MAP: And the third path?
ML: There could be a connection there with the environment, with landscape. I feel more and more a foreigner in China. The city I grew up in has changed. Lots of buildings have gone up, built in the European style. I'm thinking about a visual exploration that alternates between a calm, peaceful Chinese landscape, and the new, Europeanised roads cutting through the landscape of my childhood. This tension within the environment refers me back to my own situation.
MAP: These paths are actually quite clearly defined. Does your art systematically draw on such an elaborate conceptual process?
ML: Yes, that's the way I work. I begin with a period of intense thought, then I let myself go with my practice. The advantage of showing like this in a museum is that all commercial pressures are excluded. I can immerse myself totally in the creative process. I can't foresee the outcome of this project. Maybe in the end I'll only have a single work to present – a single image. But the repercussions of these months of research will also be felt in my practice in the long term.
9 November 2015
MAP: Steven, thank you so much for accepting our invitation. You're Mingjun's eldest son, and we wanted to meet you and have your ideas about her practice. She's currently in China working on the exhibition planned for next year. In her work she addresses the themes of family, kinship, roots and the links between the West and Asia. Could you tell us about your own relationship with China?
Steven Wagner: We've been going there on holidays every year since we were children and we have deep family roots there. We're much closer to our Chinese family than to our Swiss one. The family unit is a central, fundamental pillar of Chinese society and the relationship with the ancestors is very important. Because I wanted to get even closer to my roots I studied Chinese and lived in Beijing, which meant I had access to the living, dynamic, up-to-date China of today.
MAP: How do you see Mingjun's relationship with her origins and her Swiss nationality?
SW: She really suffered from being uprooted and losing her Chinese identity. When she married she became a foreigner everywhere. She has always had a critical attitude to her country, as is the case with academics and artists; at the same time, my maternal grandfather was a Communist cadre, which sometimes
made it difficult for her to swallow Western criticism and grasp the European point of view on China. Culturally speaking she brought us up Chinese: traditionally, not in any folksy sense, but with a particular cast of mind. On the other hand, when she's in China she turns very Chinese! Her way of speaking and her character both change, and she becomes very involved in the rites. Although she'd like to be able to go there more often, I think that fairly recently she's gone into a phase of acceptance: she doesn't think of herself as a Chinese in exile anymore, and she accepts being here and being Swiss as well, in a cultural "in-between" she calls the third space. Her work as an artist is a means of self-reconciliation, while at the same time it helps her keep her memories alive.
MAP: One part of her work is very much based on photographs from your family albums. How do you see her practice, given its roots in a cultural background you have inherited?
SW: She never gives us any precise explanations of her work. On the other hand she points out who the people in the photos are, and what's happening, and the names of the streets. Her works are also a way of handing family history and anecdotes on to us, together with her career and her memories. Our private heritage is laid out for all to see, but even so I don't feel I've been robbed of anything. There's always a distance set up by the creative process and its reinterpretation of the images – through the
handling of light and shade in the paintings and drawings, for instance. With the passing of time and the development of my own relationship with China, I understand her work better and better, and I hope that one day I'll be able to hand on to my children the link with Asia that she embodies: her approach to things is becoming a personal legacy for my brother and me.