(Hong Kong Gallery Guide Jan/Feb 2010)
Life has taken circuitous turns for Ma Desheng, leader of the Stars (Xing-Xing, 1979-1980), the group of dissident artists who rebelled against the government orthodoxy and set the stage for the future of artistic freedom in China. Since his exile from China in 1982, Ma’s works have garnered international acclaim while he has been recognized as one of the pioneers of contemporary Chinese art. Ma discusses the reinvention of his life’s story in his stone paintings with Nicolette Wong.
Nicolette Wong: Your stone figures go through constant transformation on the canvas. At times they appear as lonesome drifters; other times they seem to be playful company with one another. How do these figures reflect the story of your life? And of human lives in general?
Ma Desheng: I’ve gone through many drastic and traumatic changes that have led me to contemplate the true meaning of life. Since 1986 I’ve resided in France. In 1992 I went to the US for my exhibition and had a serious car accident in Miami, in which I lost my wife. It took me five years to recover from my injuries as well.
In that light, I see stone as a special entity in which I find echoes of my life. Stones are eternal: they are natural substances, constant and solid, and they resist the ongoing changes in nature. In my stone paintings, I evoke emotions and energy with my calligraphic strokes. My stones represent humanity, and each form of stone represents an individual. The audience can relate each painting to their own perception and interpretation.
Nicolette Wong: Your stone compositions are inspired by The Story of the Stone, the classical Chinese novel that is commonly known as The Dream of the Red Chamber. The book has been a highly popular reference in contemporary Chinese culture and art. In your view, what’s it about the story that speaks to the audience? How does it form a part of the resonance of your works?
Ma Desheng: The Dream of the Red Chamber is a profound story and it depicts some very broad, yet very precise observations of human life. The tale is at once realistic and surreal. Every detail in the narrative has its basis in real life, while its symbolism speaks to the audience at an intellectual and spiritual level. It tells you a lot about the many facets of life, which is in sync with my stone compositions.
Nicolette Wong: What do you think of the wave of avant-garde Chinese artists that have come to the forefront, such as Gu Wenda, Wang Guangyi and Xu Bing, since 1989? Do you think they have found their freedom of expression as Chinese artists, as they establish themselves both at home and overseas?
Ma Desheng: The younger generation of Chinese artists definitely have more freedom and time to focus on their creation. There’s a lot more room for them to express their character through art, since the art scene has become international with globalization.
It’s also to do with the drastic social, political changes and economic changes China has gone through since 1989. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, most of us couldn’t work as artists, and we bonded to strike for artistic freedom. But the situation was impossible and many members of the Stars group had to leave the country.
Nicolette Wong: Are you familiar or connected with some of the younger mainland artists in China? What do you think of their works and development?
Ma Desheng: There’re many talented young artists in China. Each generation has their own culture, perception and expression; I think the new generation is lucky in that they don’t have to struggle as hard with living conditions and money. For that reason, though, some of these young artists go commercial and create more market-driven works.