“Water Can Carry A Boat, But It Can Also Sink It.”
Recently, Jing Daily spoke with the young, Beijing-based painter Mu Lei (穆磊), whose works have steadily gained notoriety in China and elsewhere for their blend of dark, almost gothic sense of femininity and ’80s-influenced surrealism — what one critic called “the unlikely crossroads where Black Swan meets Galaga.” Born in 1984, Mu’s artwork has been shown at home at prestigious venues such as the Today Art Museum in Beijing and Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art, and as far afield as the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei, Singapore Art Fair, Wereldmuseum Art Museum in the Netherlands and the Robinsons Art Gallery in Belgium. Last year, along with a group of other young Asian artists, Mu was invited to take part in the 54th Venice Biennale, and more recently, an exhibition of Mu Lei’s work was launched at New York’s Asian Art Piers.
A graduate of the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, Mu has recently been busy collaborating with fashion designers and media, with his piece “Ambush” appearing in Vogue China’s 2012 Spring and Autumn special issue. For his next partnership, Mu Lei will work with the French jewelry brand Boucheron, creating new artwork based on their latest designs. Jing Daily spoke to Mu Lei about his recent works, how he sees his place in the Chinese art world, and latest tie-ins with the fashion world. Interview translated from the original Chinese by Jing Daily team.
Jing Daily (JD): Can you tell us a little bit about how you see your own artistic style? What inspires your work?
Mu Lei (ML): I usually play with the concepts of weakness and strength, in a surreal way. Stealth fighters, submarines and other symbols of strength collide with Eastern symbolism in the form of clouds, water, lotuses, the latter of which actually prove to be more powerful. These ideas spring from traditional theories of yin and yang and the five elements concept of metal, wood, water, fire and earth — the elements reinforce one another — weak relative to strong, male relative to female. Water can carry a boat, but it can also sink it.
JD: As a young contemporary artist and one of China’s “post-80s generation,” do you think you’re more influenced by Chinese artistic elements or Western elements?
ML: In my artwork, by using a humorous context I want to point out how modern society has in many ways crushed traditional civilization. Here, Chinese traditional culture collide with Western philosophical norms, but that also reflects the current state of China’s social development and what that means for society as a whole.
JD: You worked with Vogue China recently, contributing your artwork “Ambush.” Can you say a little about how your collaboration with Vogue, and other collaborations, came about?
ML: Vogue China used “Ambush” in an interview they had with me. Aside from that collaboration, my Taiji Lightning Helmet is on show at Asian Art Piers and I recently worked on two artist t-shirts for [the Chinese mass-market retailer] Metersbonwe, which they’re selling in China. I think they turned out well. I’ve worked with fashion media like Vogue several times before, actually. The fashion world’s really into art at the moment.
JD: More and more young artists are using new technologies in their work, but you stick mainly to painting, trying out new things on canvas. How do you feel about the impact that technology has had on contemporary art in China?
ML: Well, I don’t only work in easel painting, I also create new media installations. Actually, a decade ago people didn’t rely that much on computers. The connection between digital media and art wasn’t nearly as close as it is today, and people are changing along with the times. But by trying out new technological platforms, artists can try out a lot of creative ideas, which I think actually increases the possibilities for experimentation and engaging in dialogue with the audience.
JD: You were one of the young artists whose work was shown at the 2011 Venice Biennale, and your work is currently being exhibited in the US. Are you putting a particular focus on showing your work overseas?
ML: I’ve always hoped to have my work exhibited on an international stage, regardless of borders.
JD: We hear you’re going to work with the French jewelry brand Boucheron. What made you choose to work with a jewelry brand?
ML: I went to Boucheron’s Beijing flagship to take a look at their jewelry and gather up some inspiration to create a set of works for the Vogue “Art + Jewelry” special. It’s not the first time I’ve worked with a brand in this way, so I never really seek them out. The collaboration just organically came about.
JD: We’ve seen a lot of art + luxury, art + fashion collaborations between brands and Chinese artists in recent years. What’s behind this? From your perspective, do you think these types of collaborations will affect your artwork?
ML: This goes back to the relationship between art and fashion. First of all, the trends shaping both art and fashion at a given time have a certain similarity in terms of aesthetic orientation. Second, contemporary art portrays contemporary society, humanity and all its issues. Fashion, too, is a way of representing how people see the world. There’s a time and place for both. Inspiration mostly comes from life. Fashion trends are also a part of life.
In regards to my work, I can’t say I incorporate any of those fashion-related elements into what I do, but sometimes what I see around me causes a burst of inspiration. It’s unpredictable.