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Power of Non-realism: Interview with Lu Chunsheng

□ By Hans Ulrich Obrist

Interviewed by Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Julia Peyton-Jones, with representatives from Gasworks and Red Mansion FoundationJune, 2006, London.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: I wanted to ask you if you could tell us about the beginning of this film here. What was the film about? How did it start? May I record?

Lu Chunsheng: No problem. You mean the story generally? Let me think. There are a bunch of people looking for another person called Jiang Di, he is Jiang Di's descendant. Jiang Di was an astrologist and a mathematician under Elizabeth I. He was the first one to use the phrase“British Empire.”The people in the film are looking for his descendant. They want to find him to talk about some things, to make him tell his story. He has no name, he is just a descendant of Jiangdi. But I am making this all up.

Julia Peyton-Jones: It's exciting, he is telling us about his new film, which is produced by Gasworks, and which will premiere at the Sao Paulo Biennale. So far it seems not to be planned to appear in London, so if it could be ready perhaps we could make it part of this show, a London premiere. He was just about to tell us about the film.

Lu: They are trying to use a special method to make this person appear. They want to harness the pressure of the sea to move to high ground, and then to look for him on the high ground. On a certain day the wind pressure will be the highest, and then they use this special method to get to high ground to find him.

Julia: This high ground being a real place or somewhere fantastic?

Lu: All of these places are imaginary. Because I have absolutely no understanding of England, I can only imagine.

Julia: And now you have been here. How do you find the little bit that you know?

Lu: I'm just shooting all day. I haven't been to any museums, nor hardly any galleries. And all day I am with them on the street. I don't know anything, but England has some deep things for me, I don't know what exactly but I feel it.

Hans: What is your next project now that you are going back to China?

Lu: I will probably make a feature-length film. It might be quite long. Also one I will dream up. There will be six summers, and something will happen each summer.

Hans: So it's a long-term project? Or is it an accelerated six summers?

Lu: No it will all be shot at once.

Hans: Knowing your previous works, they're obviously all quite long. There is absence very often, indirect narration, other forms of structures, because your films are long but they are not feature films. And I was wondering also what was you link to cinema. Yang Fudong for example has a deep link to Chinese cinema in the 1920s and 30s in Shanghai that is epic and narrative. I have a feeling with you that that's less the case, but still there seems to be a link to cinema, and I was wondering if it was to Chinese traditional cinema in the 1920s, or if there was a link to Godard, or the New Wave, or whatever?

Lu: Yang Fudong is more influenced by Fei Mu, an old Chinese director. But I have not been so influenced by this. I like lots of movies. Do you want me to name names? Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, Andrei Tarkovsky, Francis Ford Coppola.

Hans: Who are your heroes?

Lu: Tarkovsky maybe. Jarmusch. David Lynch's first film.

Hans: Which one? Eraserhead?

Lu: Werner Herzog. Many others.

Julia: Is there a strand that runs through the work of all these filmmakers that have influenced you?

Lu: If there is such a thing, it is that they are all obsessed with different things. This one with this thing, that one with that thing, but all obsessed. Kurosawa felt that Japanese wood was not beautiful enough when it burned, so he had wood shipped in from the U.S. to burn because he thought it made nicer fire. Some people are playing for life and death when they make movies. Herzog had a boat shipped over a mountain, not from the water, from the mountain.

Julia: So, a kind of perversity.

Lu: I think that in this world there should be some extremely mysterious things. I am interested in the mysterious, not the strange.

Hans: The mystery also leads us to spaces, because in your work there is very often a mystery of spaces, whether it is institutional spaces in China, or streets or all kinds of strange spaces. So if you could talk about those spaces it would be great.

Lu: Some things are very difficult to describe but I will try. The strange things are not specific places but rather events. There are some connections among them, and then I think that behind these incidents there are underlying causes, and these are important to me. The important thing is not this factory or that, but these incidents. The spaces are just exterior coating. I think this world is too complicated; I have no way of explaining. Even China I don't think I understand.

Hans: Can you maybe tell us also about the piece you did in Guangzhou for the Triennial.

Lu: That was photographic. Regardless of whether I am shooting photos or moving film, I want to shoot… everyone knows science-fiction, flying saucers, aliens… I don't want to film science fiction, but stories that could become science fiction but have not yet. This is an attitude that I am content with.

Hans: Pre-science fiction.

Lu: And when something has not solidified yet, when it has not fully matured, there is a period of time that is extremely special.

Hans: And do you have unrealized projects? Projects that are utopic?

Lu: I want to shoot huge movies, and photographs, so many things.

Hans: Can you tell us about one?

Lu: For example, there is someone in jail and he wants to escape. He is extremely wise and smart, so he thinks about how to escape. He is going to New York.

Hans: Is this in China?

Lu: It doesn't matter, he can be anywhere, but he has to get to New York.

Hans: So there are these photographs from Guangzhou, which you says are pre-science fiction, and then there are these other photographs, the first photographs I had seen from yours, which are a bit like in Bunuel, the stylites, you know, holy people on columns, so I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about this and if there was a link to Bunuel? Do you know Bunuel?

Lu: Of course, the Spanish filmmaker.

Hans: Stylites are holy men or women who can sit on columns for months and months without eating or drinking. That sort of came to my mind.

Lu: But the movie he is talking about, I like, but I have not seen all the works of Bunuel.

Hans: Of course it does not have to be the main influence, but can you tell us how this work came about? Was it a performance?

Lu: At that time China did not have counterfeit DVDs, I hadn't seen Bunuel yet.

Hans: But I wants to know what the influence was.

Lu: There's nothing to it, I just wanted them to stand there. It didn't use a computer. I don't think asceticism is a good method. Sometimes if people stay in one place for a long time, thinking, it can be bad. Some of my works are not talking about any particular thing, not concrete stories.

Hans: Can I ask you one question about the color? The color of this image seems very different from those others, it appears to be more historical, not purely black and white.

Lu: The color is not the same? It should be the same.

Hans: What about the idea of performance? How do you find a public it seems that in these situations there are no viewers?

Lu: No, no viewers.

Hans: And what about science-fiction, because that seems to pop up a lot. What is the relationship to science-fiction, and why is it not erotic?

Lu: I think it is just an incidental attraction. I don't actually understand science-fiction, I have just grown interested in a world here and a character there from time to time. I don't know why. That's perhaps the reason.

Julia: A wonderful image comes to mind of Yves Klein of the man leaping. In some way that really springs to mind when I look at some of your work because there is an endless fascination. Because there is a sort of metaphysical association with that image, as well as a sort of very literal presence, and that metaphysical presence in your work seems to be very strong. When there is text, as Hans-Ulrich has just identified, about “Science fiction is not erotic”, it takes it one step further, into humor. So in what other ways is humor evident in your work, or is it only from time to time?

Lu: Many male artists love to photography women, they have a kind of male gaze. But I don't like this attitude, kind of pornographic almost, so I try to do something else. It's always a man using a certain kind of gaze to approach women, and I don't like that taste. So I think science-fiction is an alternative to this eroticism. Text comes up in other works too, sometimes unexpectedly.

Julia: Do you use Chinese actors in these films or are they all from here?

Lu: They're local.
Gasworks: They're London-based but actually there's an Italian, a Scotch, a couple of French. We had an audition and about 75 people came, and he just picked people based on their looks. He was very adamant about selecting people who didn't overact. So it's their faces…

Hans: How does your choose yours actors, in general?

Lu: If the feeling is right, that is all.

Julia: I'm sorry I have to leave.

Hans: What about the notion of slowness, because you bring up the idea of Chinese cities as being so accelerated, skyscrapers built in only a few weeks, there seems to be some resistance on this part, a reintroduction of slowness, so I am curious to hear about that.

Lu: I think there are some things that happen; I don't require these things to be slow but this is how they are. Sometimes the slowest things are actually the most powerful. I have just sensed that there are certain situations that take place slowly. But this is not reality. Reality influences me but not in such a direct way.

Hans: He has talked a lot about the city, can he talk about the influence of the city? One of his most famous pieces is“The Curve which can Cough,”which is obviously about vistas on the city, so I am wondering if he can talk about the role of the city.

Lu: My work is not realist. It is not a critique of reality or a reflection of reality. I think my work… I like to use scenes that occur in my imagination and then I go look for them.

Hans: So it's more in the imagination. Maybe the last question. There are so many Chinese exhibitions now, almost another one every day. I was wondering how you feels about these shows and what you thinks would be a Chinese show that makes sense right now.

Lu: I am a closed person. I don't really support or oppose these exhibitions. I don't understand a lot of different things, my friends and I keep to ourselves.

Hans: Who is in this small group?

Lu: This is not something I can say much about. Of the painters, I like Wang Xingwei. I like a lot of painters. I've never cooperated with him but I like his work a lot.