14 Jun 2022

In Conversation: Ma Kelu and David Chan

Ma Kelu speaks to David Chan about his latest show in Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong. Here is what he had to say:

D: How did you get involved with the “No Name Group”?

M: This question has been brought up many times. I wish to make it clear. “No Name Group” was founded in 1979 for the first public exhibition. Because we were going to do the exhibition, they required us to come up with a name for the public as a group. So, we thought a lot and ended up with “No Name”—no name is probably better. Also, in 1979, we had been gathering since the early 1970s already. Every day, we had a loose connection. It was a circle of friends. Each of us was different with different goals, different styles… Because we worked together, we gradually started to exchange ideas and communicate our social views and artistic points of view. Everything was getting closer, especially since all those artists were born in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. We were all facing socialist realism in official art, which we didn’t like and couldn’t accept. So, we taught ourselves. I had been involved with those people from 1972 to 73. There were several artists in the “No Name Group” who were older, like 7, 8 10 years older than me, but some of them were 3 or 4 years younger than my age. So, I was in the middle. When we got together, we did an underground show in 1975 at Zhang Wei’s home.  

D: Zhang Wei’s home. 

M: At that time, there were around 11 artists. Until 1979, at the first public show, we had around 20 to 30 people in the show. The “No Name Group” only existed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We did two exhibitions and after that, we separated in the mid-1980s. Some of us left China for school or went to America or other places.

D:  Was “No Name Group” formerly known as  “Yuyuantan Lake School of Painting” (玉淵潭畫派). What is the connection between “Yuyuantan” and “Wuming”? 

M: That was a name the people outside our circle called us by during the early to mid-1970s. The people outside our little art group called us “Yuyuantan Lake School of Painting” (玉淵潭畫派) because there were several spots and places we often went to paint. Mostly, we went to places not too far from Beijing right now, but closer because Beijing is getting bigger and bigger. So, the lakes, the rivers, and the hills, all the natural things have now been turned into a man-made park, but back then, it looked pretty wild and it was very beautiful for us to paint, like Yuyuantan Lake (玉淵潭), Fragrant Hills (香山), and sometimes we would go to the Forbidden City (故宮). Because transportation wasn’t easy at the time, Yuyuantan Lake (玉淵潭) was a place that we went to most often back in the 1970s. So, this is the reason why people called us “Yuyuantan Lake School of Painting” (玉淵潭畫派). Actually, this is not really a formal title; it was just used by people outside of our circle.

D: During this period, was it common to go and paint outside?   

M: You might have had trouble if a lot of people gathered to do something. Basically, if you did landscapes life, it was fine. From the beginning, you would get into trouble because there were places out of the city where we were not allowed to go or to take photos, let alone to paint. People would wonder what you were doing there.

D: There is no doubt that “No Name Group” was a grassroots collective that didn’t follow the  social realist style of the 1970s. What were the core beliefs and visions of this group? 

M: I think we were very clear on the belief and the vision. I clearly remember those years in China when we really disliked following the rules. I remember those years we always had nationwide art exhibitions. It was totally outside our point of the view on what is art. And back then, we worked together, and also did a lot of reading and critical discussions about art, even though we painted landscapes mostly on small scale. 

D: Mostly on paper right? 

M: Our approach was very portable. All the paintings reflected our artistic points of view. Through nature, we tried to clarify the language of art for many years. Today, we call it “art for art’s sake”. Back in those years, art was a tool for something else, but we didn’t agree with that. So, we tried to find out what was art and just painted the landscape. It was a long journey for us to search for artistic integrity. Our formal languages were to understand nature and what a traditional artistic point of view could mean.

D: You all went to the same place and painted together, so in many ways, there was a common subject. So, that offered a common reference for the group discussion to relate.

M: At that time and after work, we just naturally went to the spot and painted side by side. Even though it was the same, it was totally different with different personalities. It was the same view, but we just picked what each of us needed: colour tone, atmosphere, feeling, light, colour. Sometimes you planned the subjects, which were easy to recognise. Sometimes we had a purpose and sometimes not; the subject just came out naturally.

D: Was there anything written down, any documentation or writing that recorded some of the discussions? 

M: Back in the ’70s, we didn’t think about it. In 1979, we had our first exhibition and started having some references. During the ’70s, if you wanted to do it personally, you could write a diary. I wrote one but I lost it after so many years. We didn’t have a camera and didn’t realize we were making history, so it was hard to find any records from those discussions.

D: When you look at your paintings from the 1970s now, what are some of your recollections? What is on your mind now when you look at these earlier works?

M: After 1979 I should say, the group was getting more and more separated. People went in their own directions. For me, since 1976, [we were] always together and the style of the paintings was getting closer, but I was just getting more and more tired of that. So, I just found my own way. When I looked back at all my early works, I didn’t really care about the technique. For me, those years were important because I learned a lot; especially, I learned to understand nature. Nature is in my work, and I practiced the basic skills with modern paintings: the colour, light, colour tone, the weight of the pen, and also the control. All my works in the 1970s were done in nature with only a few of them from memory. Most of them were done in nature from start to finish. Back home, I didn’t even change one brushstroke, so I think that part of me thought that how to practice art was more important. Until now, even though there were so many changes from the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s to my recent paintings. I questioned what is art? What is the principle of my art?  

D: Nature was a starting point. How did you shift your concerns from what to paint to how to paint throughout the last 50 years? What do you mean by how to paint?

M: There is a very important word for me that I struggled with for 50 years and it’s still very important—that’s “the point”. During the 1970s, when I painted outside day by day and tried to capture the most important elements to transform nature into painting, I had to consider the colour tone and combination, the brushstroke and when should we finish, when should we stop when you are facing nature. And also, our art was only from nature. We studied history, not from museums. I remember during the ’70s–’80s, we had many discussions on Chinese ink paintings, especially the masters from early times like the Song dynasty, the Yuan dynasty, or even from the last hundred years, artists like Huang Binhong. I could have compared them with Cezanne or Van Gogh or Pissarro and found out the important elements among those artists. I found they had almost equal importance and achieved similar results with their paintings. They all had a very high level of understanding of painting. It was after the 1980s and in particular, the late 1980s, that I worked on abstract paintings. When I came to New York, I had read some books. I had some of my favourite artists like Jasper Johns, de Kooning, and Ad Reinhardt. Rothko’s work gave me a very strong impact on the human condition and spirituality in his work. The artist philosophy I like is from Ad Reinhardt. He published a book called “Art as Art”. I bought it and I read it through many times, it always reminded me of the 1970s and the mid-80s when I studied Huang Gongwang, Zhao Mengfu, Huang Binhong. So, I always compare with them because Ad Reinhardt often asks the question “What is art?”, but he never answers what is art. He started to search for what is art. The same thing happened during the 1970s with Huang Binhong. If you are making art, you have to understand what is taboo. If you understand those taboos, then you get close to what is good art. 

D: Art as taboo? 

M: Taboo is something that you should not do. In the old times, in Chinese, there is a kind of logic or language game called “白馬非馬也”. When a white horse is not a horse, a white horse is a white horse, a horse is a horse, and a horse is not a white horse. This is a play on logic and it was very much the same when I was reading “Art as Art”. He is searching for what is art by understanding what is not art. 

D: It is through non-art that one will understand what art can be. 

M: And my early works and writings talk about this. From my Bada series to my current works, I don’t want my art to be used for something else, except for the art itself. Even I know this is conservative, not like contemporary art. That’s modernism, but that’s my thinking…

D: Art is  a free form of expression. Artists shouldn’t limit themselves to define what art is. Art can be whatever it wants to be. I am glad that you brought up Reinhard which will help the audienceto understand better what you are thinking.  Did you know of Rothko when you were in Beijing or did you only know of him after moving to New York? 

M: Actually, I didn’t really pay attention to Rothko and Ad Reinhardt until the early 1990s.  I liked Jasper Johns. I really liked him even more before I went to New York. Until the early ’90s, I was influenced by the theory and viewpoint put forward by Ad Reinhardt.

D: You went to Europe first, and then from Europe, you moved to the US.

M: In 1988 January, I went to Europe, Berlin, and in November, I came to New York. So, I was in Germany, Sweden, and Denmark.

D: You arrived in New York in November of 1988, right? So, there were already a number of artists who moved to New York during the ’80s, and I think obviously for many artists from China, the natural reaction was to reflect on their own identities, and many have used it as a subject for their practice. At that time when you moved to New York, was it important for you to reflect on your identity?

M: This is very common for most Chinese artists in their lifetime. They have that kind of experience. For me also, but it was much later. Before I went to New York I did a trip to Europe. I would go to museums and galleries wherever I went, like in Berlin, Stuttgart, Cologne, Sweden, and Denmark. When I came to New York, I had read something about New York and was already very familiar with some modernists. So, for me, the slow journey to New York was not like some people going to New York from China directly . For me, I felt homesick very much. It should be called cultural homesickness. That feeling came around 1993–94, and I started doing the Bada series.

D: Looking at your works,  it all makes sense because the Bada series in some ways also fits into what you just mentioned about the comparison between Huang Binhong and also Cezanne, and also the modernists. What was your intention behind the Bada series?  Can you share with us the ideas and intentions behind this series? 

M: First, I have to explain the reason and then my intention. So, what is the reason? During the mid-1980s, I travelled around China in 1986 for half the year, and I did a lot of landscape paintings in oil and acrylic and ink on rice paper. In those years 1984–86, every year I always tried to get out of Beijing and travel for one to three months.  That’s what I did during those years, and I started ink works by using Chinese brushes to do landscape paintings as old masters did.  Until 1993, all the memories came out. In 1993–94, there was a show from Taipei that showed Chinese traditional painting and calligraphy, so that really brought out the cultural homesickness in me. And also in 1992, I finished a group of paintings with one colour tone which I showed two years ago.  I got a feeling of having almost nowhere to go, so I felt if I were to continue doing this, it would be hard for me. That’s what I thought, but right now, I don’t feel like this. Back then, I really thought about this. When I brought Chinese traditional painting into my work like the Bada series during ’93–’95, that was really on purpose. My intention was to  go beyond American abstraction and minimalism. I even used different materials like wax and charcoal; using oil with a lot of turpentine, turpenoid. I used it a lot. Later, I realised that perception, sensibility, and way of expression all come from my abstract art studies. So, I was just trying to get away from abstract expressionism and minimalism, but still, the way I paint is really rooted in Confucianism, and has helped me find aa breakthrough.

D: The monochromatic works were a response to what was happening to colour field paintings. The Bada series was an attempt to find another way out for yourself. You were looking for  another formal language, another subject for you to get out of abstraction. But when you go back and look at the compositions in black or autumn or the black, the red paintings—how do you see them now? 

M: Nothing can hide and everything is on the surface because I have a lot of black paintings. Even in the early ’80s and ’90s, and up to the 2000s and 2008, I have a pair of black paintings. Also, I did a lot of others in black, but they all have different content. No doubt, I feel really good about this. After so many years of struggling, I understand the value of art. Everything is on the surface and those black paintings and if you put them together, they are just different. 

D: It is also a process you have to go through. You are going to paint these things and then to give them time and then new meanings will emerge. Your work speaks a lot about human fate and breaks down the boundaries between life and art, and it’s something that you have treasured a lot throughout your career. You also talk a lot about whether there is enough life in the work. How would you define life in art? What kind of quality are you seeking?

M: What has been a struggle from the beginning for the ultimate freedom. Of course, I think probably in a different environment or situation… In China, a lot of artists come out of art school and the artists serve something else , so they have to find a subject matter and make art for institutions. But, for us now, art starts from yourself, from nature, or from everyday life, and if you look through all my art, my art is something, not for something. Art is made because of inner needs. You talk about time. You express everything in your art. That’s very close to your life.

D: If we believe in something and we just keep doing what we believe in, then that’s a part of life.

M: What you believe in could also be from something you find annoying and you want to get away from it, from something that has happened in your life. For example, in my later years in New York, my son went into a depression that really hurt me and my family. It was very tragic, but I got through it. When I talk about I wanted ultimate freedom, I wanted to break boundaries. In 2007–2008, after the family tragedy when I started to paint again, that’s when I decided I wanted to break the boundaries. And my works were abstract, semi-abstract, and expressionist. For these kinds of works, I did give them very specific titles. 

D: When I look at “Twilight” and “Forget Me Not”, the title “Forget Me Not” gives the first impression that it is for your loved one, but also maybe is about your return to Beijing. The attachment and the emotion of it are all there. And I know you said that you don’t want your work to be sentimental. And then “Twilight” expresses the idea of blinding light. You talk about a light that you cannot see. These two works are really essential to the show. The exhibition is organized in a way to show these two works after your New York works. The New York section of the exhibition is more about working within an enclosure. Was your return to Beijing in 2006 a very important year for you in terms of opening up.

M: The title “Forget Me Not” is not just because I returned to Beijing. That’s one of the portraits of my son. And also, he skateboarded for nine years and made video works. We did the editing, he did the shooting, and at the end of one of the video works, on the back of the skateboard, there is his handwriting, “Forget me not”, so that’s the final cut of the video. It’s a portrait also. In the background over the skateboard, there is the cemetery and other cemeteries. There are Manhattan or high-rise buildings in the picture. And the words “Forget me not”.

D: In your statement, you said, “I will tell you what abstract art is in the wilderness. This painting of mine is about light, a kind of blinding light.” What is this idea of wilderness?  How do you see this notion of the wilderness? it’s a landscape for nobody. Is that also a position that you seek? To always be in the wilderness and doing your art? I am talking about intellectually not objectively.

M: Definitely, intellectually, because later, I disliked my work always being too emotional or sentimental. From time to time, I tried to go beyond that. When I say I will tell you what abstract art is in the wilderness, my painting is about life and blinding light. The wilderness actually came up much later. From the beginning, this sentence came out of one discussion. A lot of abstract artists exchange ideas about their work from an academic perspective. They all have an academy background from somewhere, but I didn’t. When I talk about my abstract painting, I just tell them, “I will tell you what is my abstract art.” From the beginning,  It was outside the academy’s point of view. 

D: “Twilight”.

M: Then I told them that this painting is about light, a kind of blinding light. That’s originally the thing. Later, for some reason, I went through Baidu automatic translation and it became “I will tell you my wilderness…abstract art”. When I saw “wilderness”, I thought it was good and I liked it, so I kept that word. 

D: It was by fate.

D: Can you talk about the works after 2008, maybe the last 12 years. As you mentioned in our previous discussion, you want to reduce the number of elements in your paintings to the bare minimum. What are you trying to achieve with this way of working? This is very interesting—how do you start to take out things, and when to take out or how to take out, and then can you tell us a little bit more about this way of working?

M: When I did them, the artists surrounded me, and artworks surrounded me. There were so different noises and people with different ideas. A lot of the time, they were trying to compete to see who was the smartest one by using so many different materials—all kinds of materials—and trying to explain what they were doing. Something sensational or something trendy. It made things very complicated in recent dates. But for me, I wouldn’t do that. my art would be something that is materially as simple as I could make it, but physically the metaphor is much more important. That’s what I always do—always try to reduce something. In 2011, I had my solo exhibition at the Yuan Art Museum (元典美術館). There were around 200 works there and also a gallery at 798 After that in 2012 I was very down. Later I tried to start a new series of works. It was really hard after this show. It almost took me a year to recover. Until 2016–17, I felt I really broke through and built up my new series of work like “Ada”. Things were getting much clearer and I really achieved something I really liked. That’s why you included the “Ada” works from 2016 to 2020. Even those works have some kind of… I have to be honest. Just after all those years, I know there is a bit of cynicism.

D: One of the works in this show is called “Imprison” from 2015. For this work, did you try to break out from something? Imprison marked a new section in the exhibition with your recent “Ada” series So, that work is also very different from past works in many ways. As you mentioned before, the idea of Ada talks about a sudden burst of energy, a catalyst, that you want to break out? Can you tell usabout the concept behind Ada series?

M: It is just because when the first Ada series came out, one of my friends came to my studio to see my works. He got a feeling and said my works were just like the action star Bruce Lee. Then, he copied that “hi-yah” (kung fu scream), so Ada was named. There is some kind of meaning in Chinese “不加思索,一觸即發”.

D: Just like letting it go and seeing what would happen? 

M: Everything in it. But there is nothing. That’s what I really want—nothing. 

D: In some ways, it is going back to the non-art idea…

David Chan (DC) is a Hong Kong and Shanghai-based curator who works with Pearl Lam Galleries and is the previous director of Osage Gallery and the Shanghai Gallery of Art at Three on the Bund.

Ma Kelu (M) was born in Shanghai in 1954. As one of the founding members of the avant-garde artist collective “No Name Group” during the 1970s in China, Ma is a crucial practitioner of “Return Art to Ontology” in which he demands complete intellectual freedom for his art practice.