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Ros Holmes

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Translating Wax: An Interview with
Zheng Guogu and the Yangjiang Group

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Translating Wax: An Interview with Zheng Guogu and
the Yangjiang Group
Ros Holmes

RH: You have used wax in several works – including Waterfall, Pond and Garden of Pine
–Also Fiercer Than Tiger II, what first attracted you to using this material?
ZGG: We were attracted by the natural properties of wax, as it allowed us to instinctively
return to a more natural state. Wax has enabled us to observe the inner qualities of
# The Author 2013. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved

doi:10.1093/oxartj/kct007

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The Yangjiang Group consists of Zheng Guogu (b.1970), Chen Zaiyan (b.1971),
and Sun Qinglin (b.1974), and was established in 2002 in the city of Yangjiang,
China. Yangjiang is located in the south west coastal area of Guangdong
province, bordering the nearby Pearl River Delta, one of China’s fastest
developing conurbations. The group produces work that responds to their
local environment, expanding the parameters of contemporary art beyond
galleries and museums. They thus use the city itself as subject, site, and
material for their interactive installations. The group is predominantly known
for their experimental investigations and appropriation of calligraphy,
frequently transforming the medium from an elite embodiment of ‘Chinese’
culture into a vehicle for the exploration of contemporary social phenomena.
By humorously combining sayings and phrases written by local inhabitants,
they explore narratives of memory production, collective experience, and the
metamorphosis of existence that has been a resultant bi-product of China’s
post-urban expansion.
In recent years, the group has produced a series of works that fuse wax with
calligraphy to create monumental installations and sculptures that both suspend
and animate these works within their experimental exhibition settings. In works
such as Waterfall (2002), Pond (2003) and Garden of Pine –Also Fiercer than Tiger II
(2010), wax assumes centre stage as a highly experimental medium, capable not
only of transcending any culturally determined readings but also providing a
layering of meaning that combines the historical and the contemporary within
its dripping surfaces. The Yangjiang Group’s continued explorations in wax
thus challenge the conception of wax as a marginal or disappearing medium,
pointing to a reconsideration of the importance of wax within global
frameworks of contemporary art.
The Yangjiang Group’s recent solo projects and exhibitions include: ‘Colisseum
of the Consumed’ Frieze Projects, London (2012), ‘Yangjiang Group – After
Dinner Shufa at Cricket Pavilion’, Eastside Projects, Birmingham (2012), ‘Wax:
Sensation in Contemporary Sculpture’, Copenhagen Gallery of Contemporary
Art (2011) ‘Garden of Pine – Also Fiercer Than Tiger II’, Tang Contemporary
Art Centre, Beijing (2010). Recent group shows include: Biennales de Lyon
2009 – ‘The Spectacle of the Everyday Life’, Lyon (2009) and ‘Sprout from
White Nights’, Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm (2008) and ‘The Real Thing’,
Tate Liverpool, (2007).
The following interview was conducted via email correspondence. The
translation from the Chinese is the author’s own.

Ros Holmes

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Fig. 1. Yangjiang Group (Zheng Guogu, Chen Zaiyan, Sun Qinglin), Waterfall, wax, calligraphy, metal armature (2003). Height 82.7 in.; width 55.1 in.; depth
55.1 in./height 210 cm; width 140 cm; depth 140 cm. Image courtesy of the Yangjiang Group: Zheng Guogu, Chen Zaiyan, Sun Qinglin.

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Translating Wax

objects, transforming them from one-dimensional entities to things of infinite
dimensions, then returning them back again to one-dimensionality.
RH: Wax can exist in multiple physical states, as something both liquid and viscous, it is as
fragile as it is malleable. Do you see any similarities between these qualities and the way
your work evolves?
ZGG: The way that we lead our lives is a reflection of the way that we work, this
incorporates multiple physical states; be they liquid or viscous, abstract or amorphous,
they are simultaneously as fragile and as malleable as you state. These are the true
characteristics of what we call physical states. We hope that our working methods have
the same strength as wax, and that every work we create does not merely emerge
from nothingness, but materialises out of these existing developments. This is how we
would like our work to correspond with wax.
RH: Within the European tradition, wax also carries connotations of death and the
uncanny, it was frequently used in the creation of death masks and wax statues. You
have predominantly used white wax in many of your works, and it has been remarked
upon that this may also be an allusion to the use of white in Chinese culture to signify
grief and mourning. Are those associations that you wanted to explore in these works?
ZGG: Death is not the end of everything, in fact as far as we are concerned it is just the
opposite. As such, white wax offers a good starting point to begin this creative process.
By gradually pouring layer upon layer of wax over our works we create new meanings,
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Fig. 2. Yangjiang Group (Zheng Guogu, Chen Zaiyan, Sun Qinglin), Pond, wax, calligraphy, mixed media (2002), dimensions unknown. Image courtesy of the
Yangjiang Group: Zheng Guogu, Chen Zaiyan, Sun Qinglin.

Ros Holmes

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Fig. 3. Yangjiang Group (Zheng Guogu, Chen Zaiyan, Sun Qinglin), Garden of Pine – Also Fiercer than
Tiger II (2010).

these meanings are not disrupted by any mood or state of mind. If you are disrupted by
your own state of mind, you are unable to locate the nature of true existence. Only if you
are able to resist this tug can you accomplish liberation from society.
RH: There are of course some similarities and differences in the way that wax has been
used as a medium by Chinese and European cultural traditions. Are you interested in these
cross-cultural perspectives or is that irrelevant to your work?
ZGG: A discussion of similarities and differences is ultimately futile, we might as well use
wax to hold the world together. Allowing things to develop from a limited number of
dimensions to incorporate multiple dimensions is the only cross-cultural and genuine
solution.
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Translating Wax

RH: Waterfall contains over 1000 pieces of calligraphy, but calligraphy that was written by
ordinary people, instead of professional artists. By using these ordinary and quotidian
writings are you trying to transform calligraphy from an elite art form to a tool for
social reflection? Do you think it is important to re-establish calligraphy’s relation to
real life?
ZGG: The intention behind Waterfall was to allow calligraphy to escape from the
monotony of real life, to reflect upon the fact that it should no longer serve as a
spiritually and culturally unwitting slave. We want to allow it to depart from merely
being a vehicle for the study of elite or ordinary semiotics, to surpass the limitation
that analyses calligraphy purely on the level of form and allow it to be studied for its
energy.
RH: Many of the group’s works are obviously strongly rooted in your local context and
geographical setting – the city of Yangjiang itself, is it important that your work
continues to draw inspiration from your local environment?
ZGG: Inspiration is like dark matter, there is a fixed amount of it. In this respect, it’s
pretty fair to everyone. So living or working in a large city or a so-called artistic
centre doesn’t guarantee that you’ll automatically have more, similarly living in a
small city or existing on the artistic fringes doesn’t imply an inherent deficit. The
advantage of working in big cities and artistic centres lies in the profusion of cultural
activities, whereas in smaller cities and artistic peripheries your inspiration comes from
the daily activities that surround you.
RH: In many of your works there seems to be an interest not only in geographical but also
temporal contexts, in which you frequently combine the historical with the
contemporary. For example, the traditional aesthetics of pine trees are juxtaposed
against gambling and feasting scenes. Do you think it’s important to try and bridge
these temporal divides?
ZGG: Time and space are interlinked, they are intimately connected with the
environment, so that there is no distance between them. They enable historical and
contemporary knowledge to circulate, so that combining the traditional aesthetics of
pine trees with contemporary gambling scenes allows calligraphy to transcend this
apparent decadence. These two disparate temporal divides are not derivative of each
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Fig. 4. Yangjiang Group (Zheng Guogu, Chen Zaiyan, Sun Qinglin), Garden of Pine– Also Fiercer than Tiger
II (detail of installation). Image courtesy of the Yangjiang Group: Zheng Guogu, Chen Zaiyan, Sun Qinglin.

Ros Holmes

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other, there is actually no need to separate or divide them. Just as sometimes there is no
need to expand your thoughts, there is similarly no need to stifle them.
RH: Many of these wax works appear to incorporate imagery associated with ‘traditional’
aesthetics — be it pine trees, landscape painting, garden design etc., but then you cover
them in this incongruous coating of white wax. Are you interested in these deliberate
juxtapositions?
ZGG: It’s not a deliberate decision, but one that arises naturally, as their intrinsic qualities
are the same, the juxtaposition is not connected to their nature. That’s just a label that has
been affixed to us, in the same way that pine trees, shanshui (landscape) painting, garden
design etc. are seen as markers of ‘traditional’ aesthetics. Yes and no, good and bad, right
and wrong, big and small, harmonious and discordant, etc., these are all binary qualities
that wax works can transcend.
RH: By enfolding other people’s calligraphy into your work, Waterfall contains many
stories in one visual object; it both remarks upon cultural inheritance and fuses it with
personal experience. Is this something that you deliberately aim for in your works?
ZGG: The last question was about spontaneity, now we have returned to talking about
intentions. Waterfall was definitely something that was deliberate and you could say
that calligraphy is concealed deliberation. Cultural transmission is similar to the
deliberate arrangement of dark matter in that it will produce hidden art. In every
generation, personal experience shapes and is used to form decisions, the effect of
these decisions is a result of our nervous systems, it constitutes the ‘anti-matter.’
Fusion is a result of the interaction of matter and anti-matter. However, dark matter
will not fuse with these other categories, even though it exists in the universe at the
same time. Everyday invisible dark matter passes through us over eight trillion times,
but of course we are completely oblivious to this as this is how things are meant to
be. So the waterfall that you can see in the artwork and the invisible waterfall that you
cannot see are both part of our intention.
RH: Many of the works which the Yangjiang group have made deal with the role and
significance of calligraphy and you have frequently created works which emphasise the
quotidian and the unprofessional (such as newspaper writing) over the work of
so-called ‘masters’. Do you consider this ‘reclaiming the right to write’ – the
ownership of the written word – a very important aspect of your work?
ZGG: Yes, definitely, calligraphy involves moving the hands rather than the mouth, and
only when the hands move can you exercise your body. The body is the nucleus as it also
embodies our ideology. The form of our ideology shapes whether we succeed or fail,
what is important and unimportant, just like the nucleus, it enables us to move freely
and moreover represents a renewed emphasis on the right to write.
RH: In previous interviews you have stated that many ideas for these works frequently
emerge after prolonged drinking sessions where you freely associate, with the result
that you often can’t remember where the original impetus or idea for certain pieces
come from. Is this a more organic aspect of your praxis?
ZGG: Yes, when we try to look back and think about what was going on, we can never
recall what the initial starting point was, and because there is no initial reason or cause,
reality merely presents itself as a set of conventions and restrictions. The original concept
therefore seems to appear out of nowhere, emerging in the boundless moment from one
second to the next. This inability to recall allows us to transcend the restrictions and
conventions that govern calligraphy, more accurately it allows us to organically create
calligraphy beyond calligraphy. When we wake up the next day, there is an extra piece
of calligraphy on the floor but we have no recollection or impression of writing it, it’s
quite a magical feeling.
RH: You work with Chen Zaiyan and Sun Qinglin. How does the collaborative process
work for you – do you start off with an idea or concept and then confer? What is the

Translating Wax

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most interesting aspect of this collaborative process? How does it affect the type of
artworks that your produce?
ZGG: The most interesting thing about our group is that it went from being a
non-existent entity to a complete three-person entity. The world incorporates all
things, it is made of matter, anti-matter and dark matter, it is a construction of these
three things. The reality of this existence also affects the form of our artworks. Our
work is to gather the little information and knowledge that we amass every day and
transform it into a sea of subversion.
RH: By utilising the most orthodox of art forms but employing them in ways that
somehow escape and challenge the limitations of tradition, your work seems to
explore and highlight the enfolding of history and tradition into more contemporary
expressions. Is this collision an important element of your practice?
ZGG: Yes, it gives our work two directions, both traditional and contemporary.
RH: On a more practical level, some of these installations appear to use vast quantities of
wax, which have been applied in multiple layers, was it difficult to physically create these
works and achieve the effect that you desired? Was there a specific outcome that you were
looking for?
ZGG: No, the actual operation is very easy, but the original concept behind these
installations is much more difficult to anticipate and grasp. The original idea emanates
from our bodies, our nervous systems and our minds, and these three categories
correspond to the aforementioned matter, antimatter and dark matter. Returning to
the level of art, we could make an analogy between art, anti-art and concealed art.
This triumvirate interacts with each other. So any specific outcome is impossible to
predict, it’s like a formless world attempting to grasp a physical one.
RH: Due to the nature of wax these works will ultimately decay, is this finiteness, or their
impermanence an important element of the work itself?
ZGG: Yes, destruction, limitation and impermanence are all just phenomena, whether
these phenomena are important or not, and the qualities that they express, actually
has nothing to do with them. When you return to view the world through the lens of
nature, you will find it intact, but whether it is finite or infinite, permanent or
impermanent, is merely a binary opposition that is created by our confrontation with
four-dimensional time-space.
RH: In Pond the calligraphic works were made to undulate like waves, so that they appear
living, vibrating and moving, whereas in Waterfall they have been frozen and suspended.
Is there a deliberate desire to create tension between the two works?
ZGG: Yes, Pond would appear dreamlike even in a dream, whereas Waterfall has been
subjected to a sort of wonderful solidification. But the tension that exists between
these two works was not deliberately created, there is always a beautiful and
ungraspable aspect of tension that exists between dreams and reality.
RH: Recently there seems to have been a resurgence of interest in wax as a material,
highlighted by the exhibition Wax: Sensation in Contemporary Sculpture (2011) in which
you participated in Denmark. Wax as a material is often seen as being new and
exceptional, even revolutionary, as it continues to somehow resist the mainstream by
maintaining an aspect of radical innovation and peculiarity. Would you agree with this
statement?
ZGG: Wax possesses qualities that ally it with certain special characteristics of nature, it is
cold, calm, rational, static, sealed, solidified and often devoid of impurities. But what is
interesting about it is this revolutionary quality; the seeds of radical innovation and
originality are all buried deep within it, capable of springing forth at any second.
Because it possesses all of these qualities, it reminds me of our lives endlessly
revolving, which is in itself a way of resisting the mainstream.