‘I don’t make sense, I just respond to the absurd.’ An interview with Walter Yu

Walter Yu graduated from UdK Berlin in July 2017. He studied with professor Valérie Favre. He was interviewed by Art Springboard's Wolfram Schnelle in Berlin.

Wolfram Schnelle: Could you use your final presentation at UdK to explain what drives you to make work and what interests you?

Walter Yu: I’m interested in a lot of things. I don’t have intellectual or philosophical constraints. I cite stories – that’s what is most interesting for me. Stories from different literary circles. Take the ceramic work from my degree show for example. A lot of inspiration for this work comes from two Jorge Luis Borges stories, The Circular Ruins or The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths. I find it interesting how he thinks spatially but he expresses it in writing. His literature is very visual and becomes my inspiration. Many people asked me whether I’d modelled the work after this building in Italy or that building in Mali or Granada, but no. These buildings are very beautiful and I’m sure they’ve influenced me, but my inspiration is literature. A lot of my work is in book format and I’ve made it while I was reading. That’s why I don’t paint with oil on canvas but instead make small works on paper while I’m seated.

The inspiration for the long green roll that was lying on the ground is from Solaris [the 1961 novel by Stanislaw Lem]. I’m also a huge sci-fi fan. I think this dream of looking into the future is very childlike, all scientists are children. Like Jesus said, babies get into heaven most easily and a rich guy gets in as easily as a camel passes through the eye of a needle.

W.S.: Since literature is an important inspiration for you, can you tell me about the element of narrative in your work?

W.Y.: My work is often a bit like concrete poetry. I react to a story or I respond to a story or maybe a poem that I’ve read. Here you see works where I’ve painted the same facial expression but you have different words or descriptions to go with them. I think there’s a really fantastic combination between literature and painting or literature and something as an object. You observe an object. You have to look at the paper. Concrete poetry cannot be recited, you cannot read it because you really do have to look at it. Concrete poetry really has influenced me a lot.

W.S.: Tell me something about the materials you use. Why is drawing your medium of choice?

W.Y.: It’s paper first of all, like all the books, and I’ve made them as a response to the books. It’s just the easiest way to work, to have a book and another piece of paper in front of me and use a brush to paint. I use a lot of ink, watercolours, and acrylic – and Chinese rice papers. That’s also what I used for the long scroll, which was inspired by an opera from the 10th century that I saw. It’s about a hero who was set up in a trap. He was a trainer for the military and a good martial artist, but he was a boring, serious good guy, and his boss wanted him dead. He started to flee and ends up with a group of bandits where he eventually becomes the second in command. But he has lost the freedom that he had that one night when he was escaping. This actor’s song is incredibly beautiful. It was a one-person opera on a very small stage so this actor has to act all night as if he’s escaping. He runs to the edge of the city, then into the wild. He passes trees and goes on into the desert, to the water and over the water into the mountains. He has to describe the surroundings and the environment he was running past. The descriptions were so great that they served as an inspiration for the long scroll. I called the work Nachtflucht (Nightflight). I didn’t know it would be so long! In this work I didn’t write down anything except for a few words.

W.S.: What other elements apart from literature go into your work?

W.Y.: It could be anything: A trip, a song. I use a lot of lyrics. In the end it always comes back to narratives. Like with the 10th century song I described. I somehow like the way narratives make things easy and clear. And I like it when I have the feeling that it’s just the right amount. Not too much, not too little. Sometimes I think that I – and many other artists – are afraid of something not being enough and then by adding an extra part to the work we actually destroy the previous work. But we’re too afraid to stop in time.

W.S.: Talking about stopping – when is a work finished for you?

W.Y.: It depends on the story I want to tell. Of course I make many failures. I’m still full of fear and throw away many of my works. It’s very hard to say when something is actually finished.

W.S.: Can you describe a certain quality that a work must have for you so that you say ‘I’m happy with it’?

W.Y.: It’s usually when I’m free in the whole process. When I’m somehow not thinking about the construction of the painting, space, or colour. I prefer the most direct way. When I feel it, I know it. I think you know many things in your life. You feel free when you’re cooking, bathing, or doing other everyday things. But it’s really difficult to commit to saying I am what I am. I don’t have to be good. I can be a bad painter, you can be a bad cook. That’s a relief for me. I had many burdens that I gave myself when I came to Germany. I thought I had to be a good artist. But what is good? People told me what is good. Art history did, and the art market. We keep telling people what’s good, but that’s not you. Well, if you want to make money you have to listen but that has nothing to do with creating art or creation as such. Sometimes you make a good work and people say ‘WOW’. Sometimes people say ‘What you’re doing is so bad’ and you get so frustrated. Sometimes you get praise and you suddenly feel happy. But those things are not free. It’s all about fear – it’s the same fear in both situations. So it’s very difficult to say what I keep and what I throw away and when I’m finished. I don’t think there’s an answer to this question.

W.S.: I’m interested in the fact that you’re between two cultures. You’re Chinese, you came to Germany to study art. You use words in your work. Languages tells you so much about people and culture but at the same time you’re also challenged with the question of translation. How is that for you? Being in Germany, studying here, western vs. eastern art, very different histories, different references.

W.Y.: This is a question that keeps being asked of artists. When Poussin travelled from France to Italy, people would ask him the same question. Or when Dürer travelled from the North to Nürnberg, people would ask him the same question. At that time the world was small. And there are differences. I think the millions of Chinese immigrants in Europe and other parts of the world have the same situation. They have different tastes, habits, they eat different food. They talk in a different voice and, as you know, you need very different muscles around your throat to speak another language. I think many differences are physical. That becomes a cultural difference. Yet to my generation in China – I was born in 1989 – we didn’t have a lot of cultural education. Maybe the only culture that I have is the language skills that allows me to read in Chinese, even in ancient Chinese. I think I choose my culture. You choose your culture. Culture is not like sin, something you’re given when you’re born. If I were an orphan who was raised in Germany I would have a totally different culture. But, anyway, you can choose your culture. If you speak Chinese very well, you are likely to choose a culture that’s related to the language. That’s how you broaden your horizon.

W.S.: You use elements that other people would probably describe as typically Chinese. The roll, the rice paper, the Indian ink. Is that even relevant to your work?

W.Y.: Not really. They are convenient. The canvas was invented in the Netherlands, I believe. They were called Tüchleinmaler. But nowadays nobody says, ‘Ah, it’s Dutch’. If you paint on canvas nobody says it’s from the Netherlands. Why the hell do people keep saying if you paint on Chinese paper with ink it’s from China? It’s only a question of distance. If you were an alien you would say we’re all homo sapiens painters who use earth materials. You wouldn’t say it’s Dutch or Chinese or anything like that.

W.S.: Tell me about the series of small drawings that you exhibited as part of your degree show at UdK.

W.Y.: I wanted to gather them and make them into a book. To me it’s endless. They could be one, they could also be separated individually. If you take a drop of water from a river, would you call this drop of water a river? Probably not. But if you put it back into the river it becomes the river.

W.S.: What about your experience at UdK? How did it inform your work?

W.Y.: I think Berlin as a city informed me much more than UdK. At UdK I studied a lot and I learned a lot from my professor Valérie Favre. She taught me to take risks, to know that this kind of feeling of uncertainty is actually fear, and how to distinguish a work that is done with fear from a work that is done more freely. And that’s very important to an artist, I think.

W.S.: What fascinates you about Berlin?

W.Y.: So many secrets. Like the light at night reminds me of Beijing. I’m from Beijing. I bought a small inflatable canoe and I paddle it in the night through the city. Or I go to Kreuzberg and Neukölln to have fun at night. The Gemäldegalerie, the Museumsinsel. Many things.

W.S.: A lot of your works show night scenes. Is that an important part of your work – and why?

W.Y.: It is. I just prefer the night view. In the night you see things in grey. In German you say ‘Nachts sind alle Katzen grau’ (all cats are grey at night). I think it’s easier for me to paint. I’m able to use fewer colours and it’s also cheaper than to paint a colourful day. You have to use so many colours. But I’m touched by the night scenes. They are so lonely, so strange. There are so many things that I don’t understand in Berlin, or in China for that matter. I don’t understand many things. In the night I see in the distance a shining train driving by. There are bright lights inside the wagons, it’s almost empty. Where does it go? It sounds a bit kitschy or melancholy. It’s not really pleasant but it’s also not horrifying. Loneliness is also part of it. I think many people have that feeling.

Things are really strange. A bunch of homo sapiens, a bunch of monkeys, succeeded in travelling to an island over the sea. And after many years those monkeys say this island is bankrupt. That’s Iceland. I can’t understand it. A group of monkeys went there and now they say this island is bankrupt. That’s so absurd. Things are so absurd. And when you see the world at night, it seems even more absurd. People sleep at night but they run fast during the day and if you’re running with them you don’t feel it. Only when you have a big distance to what you’re observing can you finally understand that you didn’t understand. That what you understood was actually an illusion of Selbstverständlichkeit (implicitness).

W.S.: Almost like a way of trying to make sense of the world or of what’s around you by putting it on paper.

W.Y.: I don’t make sense, I just respond to the absurd.

W.S.: What’s next for you, now that you have finished your studies?

W.Y.: I want to make a book of my drawings and I want to develop a game. It’s called Journey. For example, you come from a very strange land and you get to a strange place. In order to go to the next scene, you have to take the train and go in a circle. That doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t make any sense, but I don’t like the sense in shooting zombies or killing aliens with a knife or a gun. With computer games, I enjoy that it’s all around you and you’re really in it. I want to make it according to my narrative. But it’s a big plan to develop a game. It’s much easier to say than to do.

W.S.: What’s your motivation for making the game?

W.Y.: It’s because I like games. To our generation the first inspiration to make art is banal things: cartoons, games, animations. That’s your first time. Like your first experience of sex. It’s not from old masters. It’s rather from cheap images that can be copied and the copy doesn’t destroy the quality. It’s just a copy of another copy of an image. It’s not like what is at the Gemäldegalerie, which you cannot copy. I wanted to make art that can be copied. Instead of one rich guy, one institution that keeps one piece of work for a million dollars, a million people can have a piece for one dollar. I think that’s the future. It’s difficult. I know art has to be elite because the market has to be so to make money from it. Otherwise you sell art like you’re selling sausages. You don’t make big money from it. That’s why we’re forced to be elite, to be deep thinking, and to fake that we are cleverer than the others. But we’re not. And it’s a burden to fake. That’s why I want to make a game.

W.S.: How should I imagine the visual element of the game? Does it have the look and feel of your drawings, similar to a William Kentridge work that you can interact with?

W.Y.: It’s also hard for me to imagine. I’m still searching. Of course I’ll have to work with a game developer. They’re the pros. I’ll make it three dimensional and it will look totally different.

W.S.: The first question as the last question: How did it start for you? How did you get into making art?

W.Y.: I have a German stepfather. He married my mother when I was ten. One year later my sister was born. After her birth they rented a small piece of land in Beijing. They started building small houses and I stayed all day long alone in the city. I had nothing to do. I just travelled around the city. It was a special feeling, a special gift for my life. I’m not blaming my parents, they were really good to me. But at the time they had their problems. They had to do their things, like make money to build their homes, and you’re like an observer instead of being under control. Like all kids. Sometimes they need the time to be alone. They badly need to be left behind so that they can think and feel and enjoy their own time. I had this gift. Playing games and reading books as a boy also gave me a lot of inspiration. That’s why I can say that I take computer graphics seriously instead of saying that that’s a lower aesthetic. That is such an arrogant lie. I appreciate that aesthetic and I think it’s the future.

To see all works by Walter Yu click here.

To learn more about the artist, click here.

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