He puts down the tripod and attaches the camera onto it. “It won’t make you nervous if we record this interview, right?” he asks me. Not that I have much choice now that things are being set up, ready to get rolling. “No, I don’t mind,” I hesitantly say, wishing I had put on something more elegant for the day. He sits down, somewhat sprawled into his chair. On the surface he seems so relaxed and self-assured, yet this artist would be the most hard-to-grasp artist I would interview thus far. Let me introduce you to Shenyang-based artist Deng Yu (邓 宇).
He is only 38 years old but just recently inaugurated a one-man show exhibition in Shenyang entitled The 20 year retrospective. On display are works assembled from the young age of 18 until now. Is it even possible to do a retrospective exposition at the age of 38, I wonder? Yet, while speaking with Deng Yu, you have the feeling that you are talking to an eighty-year-old.
His way of speaking is impregnated with references to Confucius and other wisdom he has come to learn by personal experience. His words are profound and filled with meaning. Everything he says seems to be for a reason and nothing is superfluous. That is the main reason he wants to record this interview, so he can listen to it later on when our conversation is over. “Sometimes I don’t remember what I say,” Deng Yu comments. We all laugh but I know he is serious. The words come out in streams when he speaks. It is almost as if he were in a trance. I do not ask too many questions and let him speak his mind freely.
When we finish almost two hours later, he says that this was one of the best interviews he has ever done. He attributes it to the fact that I am the first “westerner” with whom he has ever had the opportunity to share his thoughts with. The fact that, according to him, I am new to Chinese art and Chinese cultural concepts obliges him to explain certain things he would never explain to an insider (a Chinese person). This made him reflect on his own unquestioned ideas and preconceived concepts.
When you look at the Deng Yu’s exposition you are immediately hit by the variety of his oeuvre. Some of the works are painted in greyish colours. They are memories of the artist or made up places that do not exist in reality. Other paintings consist of Peking Opera singers outlined in the most exuberant, lively colours. On the one hand they are very traditional and to western eyes it is tempting to see it simply as Chinese folkloric art. Yet, taking a closer look, they are abstract and have a contemporary feel to them. Deng Yu explains that he chose these opera singers as a way of expressing himself. Even though the actors are heavily made-up or wear masks, their faces are all about emotion. Deng then clarifies that every single one of these paintings is in fact a self portrait. Yet, it immediately makes me wonder, why make a self portrait by using figures that express their emotions through makeup and masks? I am again confronted with this double feeling I have had about Deng Yu all along. He seems so self-confident in everything that he does and says, yet, he does not quite show himself, does he?
Deng Yu then explains that his art is not only about himself. Even though it is a retrospective show of the last 20 years of his life, the most important question that Deng wants to pose is to make you think about yourself. He wants his paintings to question its viewer: Who are you? What do you see? Deng affirms that he already knows who he is, so when I ask him how he did it, he comments that the question one should ask in order to find oneself is not “Who am I?” but “Who are you?” “I am you, and you are me”, he explains. His paintings try to do the same, they ask the question: Who is Deng Yu, and thus, who are you? Yet, just as the painted faces of his Peking Opera singers, it all remains rather enigmatic and I do not find a satisfying answer to the question. Maybe enigmas are capable of understanding themselves. Maybe there is no need for others to find the answers to the questions they pose.
Deng Yu also makes these wonderful paintings of Tai Qi practitioners. They are in greyish tones and the composition is completely balanced. They transmit a sense of total control and peace. Even though the figures are painted while in action, the movement present in these paintings are subtle and calming. Deng Yu did not mention that these Tai Qi practitioners are also in fact self portraits but I have come to the conclusion that they fit him better than the masked faces of the Chinese Opera singers. He is so young yet so self-assured. It seems as though life itself holds no secrets anymore for this artist. He has an answer to everything and it all comes so naturally. He seems balanced; every word he says seems to be measured and nothing is said or done needlessly. It is exactly the same equilibrium so obvious within his Tai Qi series. And now that I come to think of it, this balance is present throughout his whole oeuvre and can be sensed in each and every painting on display within his exposition. Now, a few days after our interview, I find it hard to put a finger on Deng Yu.
While writing this article I constantly think about our conversation in order to make sense of it all. I guess that I shall simply have to accept that many aspects of Deng Yu will remain to be a mystery to me. Maybe that is the reason he likes to record his words on tape, so he can make sense of it all as well when everything is over. If at the age of 38 Deng Yu has already reached such profound self knowledge, one can only stand by and admire. You do not often come across individuals like him, neither in person, nor on tape.