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Cloud's Nightmare, Animation 8’30″,2010

The animations and paintings of Wu Junyong have the same unsettling effect of an Aesop’s Fable or Grimms' Fairytale. Peopled by kings, jesters, and animals, they use the language of shadow-puppetry and performance to comment on the greed and hubris of society. Almost gothic in their aesthetic, they are marked by a dark wit that seems timeless, crossing Chinese and Western mythology to expose the follies of those in authority. There is more than a little of The Emperor’s New Clothes in Wu’s work, and a strange feeling of wickedness in the fact that pictures so violent should be so appealing.

Wu Junyong's studio is a mish-mash of paper cut outs pinned to corkboards, paintings propped up against the walls, prints hanging from the upper levels, and a quiet digital studio in the corner. It's easy to picture him moving from one area to another, picking up different tools with which to work, depending on the mood and demands of the moment.

To meet Wu Junyong is to come into contact with the same cheeky ambiguity in his art. Hopefully something of his mischievous smile comes through in the interview posted below.

Christen Cornell: You moved to Beijing from Hangzhou two years ago. How’s the move been?


Wu Junyong: Beijing is like a big stage. I started in a village, then moved to a regional city, then moved to Hangzhou – which is quite a big city – and now I’ve moved to Beijing, an even bigger city. It’s fun here. You can meet all different kinds of people: smart people, stupid people, over the top people, some crazy people. All kinds. And you can see that everyone’s performing – I’m performing too. It’s just that we all have a different performance.

CC: Your works already have the feeling of performance. Has Beijing influenced this?

WJY: It’s probably made me more hardworking, more committed. In Beijing your status becomes very simplified. You’re an artist here. In Hangzhou I’m a teacher, but I’m also an artist, and a normal person at the same time. But here you’re just an artist, so you work a lot harder at that.


CC: Your paintings and animations often include animals. Like fables, they seem to represent something. Can you talk a little about that?

ong__Opera_still__2007__still_from_DVD_video.jpgStill from Opera 2007

WJY: Animals often have a kind of symbolic status. They represent things. So for example a dragon has a lot of meaning in China – it’s supposed to fly in the sky, to be powerful. But then I’ll often have dragons falling from the sky, or even being cut up – about to die, sapped of their energy.

CC: Your pictures can appear so innocent at first glance, but then often become quite frightening the more you look.

WJY: I hide a lot of things inside them. As far as I’m concerned every picture is a riddle. It might suggest a story we think we’re familiar with, but then I put a whole lot of other random things in there with that to confuse.

So one picture might have a group of people all going in one direction, but then you might notice that somebody’s arm is upside down. The direction is confused; the characters look lost. Then there might be another person sitting on top of a chair. You could call him ‘the chairman’, but the chair is so high it looks unstable. It’s dangerous up there – he’s too far from the ground to be safe.

CC: Do you know how you want to make your audience feel while you’re working?


WJY: I suppose I want my works to have a feeling of tragedy. My films are all kind of melancholy, and also have a feeling of helplessness. You can feel the direction of the characters is probably not good – is probably getting more and more dangerous, more and more corrupt. So you start to wonder why, and what it is they’re actually doing. I don’t really know what the audience is thinking, but a lot of people say they can sense that mood.

CC: Many critiques would then say that these kinds of contradictions – these uncertainties and ambiguities about what is right and wrong, possible and impossible – say a lot about contemporary China.

WJY: This has been my focus these last few years. I think a person’s upbringing starts with him looking at himself, and then later, when he’s grown up a little more, he starts to look at the world around him. You can’t hide from society; you have to face it and the questions it raises.

CC: Would you say you’re a political artist?

WJY: Of course. A lot of my work is about politics, about power and public officialdom. This is a big issue right now. You have to face it. I chose to face it directly.

Dysphoria, 2010, Animation, 02:02

CC: Do a lot of people ask you what the hat means?

WJY: [Laughs] I’ve answered that question many times.

CC: Does the answer keep on changing?

WJY: This year the answers will probably all be the same, but they’ll be different from the answers last year, because the meaning of the hat is always changing. So it might have started with the idea of ‘daigaomao’ – to wear a tall hat – which in Chinese culture means that I might praise you and be very over the top in that praise. I give you a tall hat to wear, but in fact the praise and flattery is all false.

In China everybody’s constantly flattering each other. In the paper, you can see the government praising itself, praising China, praising the Chinese people. Chinese friends, when they’re together, are the same – just praising and flattering each other. It’s a big joke! So the hat has this kind of meaning.

250l.jpgSpades 2010, 100x80cm, oil on canvas

CC: It also makes me think of the Cultural Revolution, when people had to wear these hats to receive public criticism.

WJY: That’s right, because one minute somebody’s flattering you, and the next minute behind your back they’re cutting you down! [laughs]


CC: Did you grow up in a city?

WJY: I grew up in a village. When I started university I didn’t know one European artist. Maybe Da Vinci or Van Gough, maybe Andy Warhol, but I really had no idea about any modern or contemporary art. At university everyone was going on about Lucian Freud – I was like, who’s Freud? I only knew Chinese revolutionary art, Soviet Art, these kinds of things. I knew nothing about Western art. It was a very closed environment where I grew up.

CC: Is it a bit unusual that you went to art school then, a kid from the village?

WJY: Not really, because the area I grew up in was very advanced in its own folk arts. It was a very cultured place in its own way. And you can see my art is still influenced by this. It’s had that traditional folk art influence throughout my time at university to today. I bring traditional Chinese folk art into a contemporary context.

CC: Do your films all include the same characters and look like shadow puppets?

WJY: Not necessarily. I did this three-part work in 2005 called Opera which really changed the direction of my work. Up to that point it all had the feeling of being on a stage, but still in a very intimate environment. From there though it started to have this look of a circus troupe and moved into a more public space. The images started to have a stronger connection with history and to be more clearly about a performance.

CC: When you talk about history you’re not only talking about Chinese history, though, are you? The stories you tell aren’t only Chinese stories.


WJY: That’s right. There are all kinds. So for example there are many images in the Opera Series that come from a Bruegel painting, ‘The Blind Leading the Blind.’ All those blind people pulling a rope – the idea actually came from this painting.

CC: So your works often have this connection to the classics. Perhaps that’s why they feel slightly familiar to me.

WJY: The language is probably familiar, even if you don’t always know where it’s come from.



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Artspace China profiles Chinese visual arts, music and literature, presenting an overview of Chinese contemporary culture while also being a resource for specialised research. It is jointly sponsored by the University of Sydney China Studies Centre and Confucius Institute.

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