30 October 2020 | Interview

Thousands of Deaths, the Cultural Revolution, & the Art of Tian Taiquan

A few weeks ago, I brought up to a good friend of mine that I am lacking a good photographer in the portfolio for my Art Gallery. Mundane and sophisticated as she is, she immediately showed me some artworks of her friend Tian Taiquan. I was blown away, got in touch with him, and boom, here we are. Well, frankly speaking, it was not as easy as it may sound. The language barrier between China and Europe can be a frustrating experience on both ends. Sending each other countless messages through WeChat-, and Google translator, we finally succeeded with this interview. I got to know Tian Taiquan as a friendly, funny, warm-hearted, and professional artist, who doesn’t take himself too seriously. This is what we talked about!

Velártez: Mr. Tian, before we get to the topic, let me ask you the following question: Living in Chongqing, how have you experienced and are still experiencing the pandemic? I hope the virus did not affect any of your family members, friends, and business partners negatively. Did it affect your art-making process in any way or your perception about the world and life in itself?

Mr. Tian: Living in Chongqing for decades, the recent outbreak of the new Coronavirus in 2020 is the most impressive. At the same time, the virus is impacting my life, my working procedure, and the finances of my family and friends. During the quarantine period in Chongqing from January to February 2020, I took many pictures and videos. I think it is necessary to record our history from our point of view. The new Coronavirus is a human tragedy. In 2017, I created a video work called “Virus” referring to my belief that human beings are viruses. Ironically, that work is more contemporary than ever.

Velártez: You were born in 1960 under poor economic conditions. Back in the days, the Cultural Revolution was raging in China. Nobody can tell, but estimates are ranging between 500.000 to over 20 million deaths tolls. You have witnessed extreme poverty, anarchy, despotism, as well as the complete turnaround, personal success, social recognition through your artworks, and the awaking of the sleeping dragon back to global power. How does anyone cope with such a moving history?

Mr. Tian: The financial circumstances in which I was born were indeed very disillusioning. My parents couldn’t even afford to buy milk to feed us, so we had corn soup instead. From 1966 to 1976, as the Cultural Revolution was raging, I was 6 to 16 years old. What has stayed present in my mind is the limited supply of daily necessities that we had to live. Food stamps, vegetable stamps, oil stamps, salt stamps, sugar stamps, coal stamps, cloth stamps, etc., had become a natural part of life. You couldn’t get anything without them. For example, to buy a steamed bun, we had to pay 2 cents plus two coarse grain coupons. 

Despite the poor economic conditions, we considered ourselves to be the happiest in the world. We were receiving a good education and thought that the Taiwanese, the Russians, Africans, other Asians, and Latin Americans were living in dire straits. We thought that we had to study hard, make progress every day, and grow up to join the People’s Liberation Army to free the entire humanity.

During the Cultural Revolution, fierce fighting took place in Chongqing. The opposing two sides chanted “Death to the death to defend Chairman Mao” killing thousands of people. Aside from that, everyone was very enthusiastic, often beating gongs and drums in the streets. Every morning my father asked our five children to kneel in front of Mao’s statue and recite quotations. Reciting was also the first thing we were doing each morning at elementary school.

After the Cultural Revolution had ended, Deng Xiaoping began to carry out reforms and opening up. From top to bottom, everyone went into the next round of fanaticism – making money – and forgot the horrifying events rapidly. A few years later, when I faced the desolate and overgrown Red-Guard Cemetery, two words kept popping up in my mind: Not forgetting. Thus, my work series “Forgetful” was born.

The years of ups and downs in China were also the years where I lived at the bottom of society. Many people say that the post-60s generation in China is the most tragic. At the same time, I also think that I have been lucky to have lived through those events. It is too difficult for an artist to create shocking, impressive, and meaningful art if it has not witnessed historical moments. My joy today is rooted in an abundance of social-, and life experiences made.

Velártez: How do you evaluate the peoples’ mindset during that era?

Mr. Tian: My childhood took place during the era of the Cultural Revolution. My family, neighbors, classmates, and everyone else naturally fell into that prevailing collective unconsciousness. Because there was no difference between what we saw and what we heard, our thinking was highly unified or consolidated.

Velártez: How did your path and education as an artist begin?

Mr. Tian: I liked painting since I was a child, and received my first camera when I was 18, in 1978. Painting and photography have become an essential part of my life.

In the second year of university in 1986, I organized for myself a solo exhibition of conceptual photography. The works are all self-portraits, and the image of myself is distorted and deformed to express my inner world.

With the first digital camera in 2003, I started focusing on photography out of which, in 2005, the series “Forgetting” got created.

Unfortunately, Chinese art education for children has always set boundaries to the techniques applied, which I dislike. My son enjoyed painting at a very young age. I taught him that art is not about recreating old images but about changing and innovating; painting is not simply about learning techniques, but an artistic expression. The success of my son has risen interest, and more and more people hoped that I would use the experiences made while guiding my son for the benefit of more children. Thus, in 2011, I started to teach art to children.

Velártez: How do you remember your academic years? Were there any problems you were encountering?

Mr. Tian: I am very fortunate that I have not encountered any unsolvable problems in my life, creation, and work. Maybe because of my optimism, many problems can be resolved successfully.

Velártez: What is your overall goal? What are you trying to accomplish with your art?

Mr. Tian: Art is power. I hope to influence more people with my work and my art education specifically. China’s existing system of art education is old-fashioned. With the school that I have found, I believe that I can have a profound impact on our future, contemporary art. 

Velártez: Mr. Tian, how does a typical day as an artist look like?

Mr. Tian: Work! Work! Work! Life is work, and work is life. That’s all that it is about. For many years, I didn’t want to sleep or even eat daily, I just wanted to work! For me, everything I do every day is driven by my inner passion.

Velártez: Which artists, moves, and styles do you like the most, and what else interests you except art?

Mr. Tian: I like Duchamp. Duchamp’s greatest work in 1917, The Urinal, created ready-made art. He brings more possibilities for the future of art. Besides art, my favorite sport has been playing badminton twice a week for more than ten years.

Velártez: What can we expect from you in the future? And after so many achievements, what else are you trying to accomplish in the art world?

Mr. Tian: I hope to influence and change more people with my artistic ideas, artistic creation, and especially the youngest with art education.

Velártez: The reality of art is that 75% of all artists make less than $ 10,000 a year with their artwork. On the other hand, there are a handful of artists who make millions over millions. Also, there are bizarre artworks that get too much attention. Piero Manzoni produced 90 cans, each filled with 30 grams of his feces, that today get sold at auctions at prices above $ 200,000. Or a banana that, taped at a wall generated more than $ 150.000. Is art nowadays a joke?!

Mr. Tian: I once said to my son that if you decide to be an artist, you must be prepared for a lifetime of poverty and depression. After all, successful artists are rare. I think contemporary art is more innovative and groundbreaking. Today’s artists are continuously experimenting and taking risks. The essence of art is innovation, not sticking to conventions.

Velártez: Mr. Tian, thank you very much for your time. We wish you and your closest all the best during these times and stay healthy.