Friday and Every Three Sundays
Norbert Odesman is a writer who enjoys perplexing himself by squeezing in the space between an art critic and an artist critic.
Tongji Philip Qian is an artist who occasionally prepares for artistic situations and always encourages peculiar things to happen.
This conversation happened in person at Left Bank in New York City on October 1, 2020.
Norbert Odesman: So I am surprised by the presentation of “Friday and Every Three Sundays,” because I have never seen you use leather.
Tongji Philip Qian: I am always interested in leather but have never appropriated it as my canvas or arena for play. In the past few years, I have wanted to unpack my artistic intentions, and it is a difficult task which demanded lots of organizing. When I tried to pinpoint one medium to focus on, a conversation with a shoe designer in Brooklyn resulted in some orders of vegetable-tanned leather. It is the material you see here.
NO: How does it differ from commercial leather? Is it vegetarian?
TPQ: It is commercial leather. Although I am not well-versed about the leather industry, I know vegetable-tanned leather goes through a specific tanning process which engenders less industry waste as chrome tanning. Because it is a traditional and fairly natural process, the vegetable-tanned leather ages particularly well. If I place the vegetable-tanned leather outside in my yard, it darkens very quickly because of the exposure to sunlight. It goes from light beige to dark brown.
NO: I have to admit the patina of the leather is certainly pushing me to think in terms of the skin tone. You used the phrase “ages well.” Are you commenting on the live quality of the leather?
TPQ: It just is not static. You could think of it as the process of getting sunburnt. When one stays out in the sun, one gets slightly tan and eventually sunburnt. This vegetable-tanned leather responds to the sun exposure similarly. The patina gets darker first, and then duller because excessive sun is making it lose the “shine.” Did you not work in the vintage clothing business? Maybe you would be familiar with the infamous A-1 flight jackets. You know they only get better with time due to the leather that is not only sensitive to wear and tear but also durable to showcase such palimpsests.
NO: The good old days in the American West. Thank you for reminding me of my different lifestyle away from writing a few glasses ago! I am familiar with A-1 jackets and am in fact very fond of them. I guess Steve McQueen is one of your idols!
TPQ: Haha, not really, but I do like The Great Escape. It provides me with a glimpse of history and I am transfixed by such humorous dramatization with film. I am Chinese and do not in this situation feel nostalgic. Everything that was happening in post-war Europe and America at that time seems so distant from my own upbringing. While I lament the fact that I did not live then to witness the “coolness” affirmed by the war, which is in and of itself replete with irony, I know and strongly believe it is exciting to be living now. And more about nostalgia. My choice of leather and my newborn commitment to this medium are informed by my idiosyncratic interpretation of post-war American art. I just moved to a house about 1.6 miles from Dia: Beacon and am practicing tricking myself to think I understand the so-called minimalists just because of how close I am to their sculptures. I always sense that each minimalist claims one material: Donald Judd with wood, Richard Serra with steel, Fred Sandback with yarn, etc, and I might have a chance with leather. Maybe I am naive, but it has been fun.
NO: I do find the leather to be subtle and calming, but I wonder whether people connect it with the meat industry which recalls violence? The stacked configuration does evoke aesthetics of Serra’s early works. I actually believe he worked with leather or vulcanized rubber for a brief period in the sixties. Are you implying that you are following the style of minimalism?
TPQ: First of all, the leather is the de facto waste of the meat industry, so I am sure many hides are available in the market due to the amount of beef consumed every day in this country. To your second question, I do not look at art according to style. I believe stylistic analysis is linear, and exists at best in the form of a Venn diagram. Compartmentalization needs to be taken for granted for intersections to happen, leaving little room for new discoveries. Therefore, speaking of art in terms of its style might be backward-looking instead of forward-thinking.
NO: Well said, and you might be right that art history and art differ precisely because of their contrasting priority or lens. I know you do not like to talk about school but maybe I could force you to since we are here. You have a degree in printmaking. Did you always make prints?
TPQ: I did, and I am forever indebted to how printmaking shaped my career. I had favored the print media because they offered me a visible distance to my own hands, and the action of stepping back, in my opinion one of the hardest things to do for artists, is automatically codified in the process of printmaking. I believe I had made some intriguing prints, but I gradually realized too much needed to be learned to print, and not enough emphasis was placed on responding to the problematic in the contemporary. After all, printmaking usually results in an object—the “objecthood” is inescapable. I used to fetishize the margin of the plate and the paper, believing that the figure-ground relationship could be subverted, but I later figured that such a relationship would still be taken for granted, albeit differently. In other words, one thing is there to be looked at, its boundary clearly defined. Maybe I also find the idea of medium specificity (of printmaking) hard to corroborate for contemporary art because concepts and apparatuses become hybrid and at times inseparable.
NO: I am not too knowledgeable with printmaking, but are you suggesting it is becoming outdated, if not alienated by contemporary art?
TPQ: No, I am not. I am saying that printmakers are beleaguered by the necessity to do things right, rather than the criticality of doing the right thing at the right time. It might be what Liliana Porter would call “the trap of technique.” I also think the editioning process of printmaking is contradictory, because it seems the more prints on the table, the more likely it will become printerly.
NO: I do not understand what you meant by “printerly.”
TPQ: I probably do not either, but let me try. I think many prints embody similar aesthetic priorities with the permutation of stenciling, layering, and coloring. They become predictable very quickly because of their shared rhetorics. Do not take me wrong. I am not suggesting that singularity is more desirable than multiplicity, but I wonder whether the blind pursuit of the reproducibility of printmaking intentionally bypasses a critical opportunity to address diversity and difference. Editioning seems to only contribute to the formal qualities of art, and it demands little contemplation because of the repeated sameness. Again, I would like to emphasize I love printmaking, and I know it is precisely the print language which initially prompted me to become an artist. I am unsure, however, whether it is the best approach to art now. Maybe it is difficult for printmaking to supply the intellectual underpinnings for contemporary art. Printmaking might strictly be a studio practice and it is harder to be ambitious that way.
NO: I think you touched upon a few different ideas here, and I would like to slow down just a bit. Could you elaborate on the last point you brought up? Would it be more desirable for art to exist outside the studio?
TPQ: I could share one specific moment when I decided that I will move my practice outdoors, or out of the studio. I went to an exhibition titled Radicalism in the Wilderness in the Japan Society in New York in the spring of 2019, which was curated by Reiko Tomii, and Yutaka Matsuzawa’s conceptual artworks like the Psi Zashiki Room in the sixties really renewed my interest in taking the work out of the studio. I was thrilled by the creative ambition of Matsuzawa. Although he was living in a rural village in Japan, which is far from the center of the art world, he adopted mail art to send folded artworks with instructions to reach artists and critics in Tokyo, thus transcending his peripheral studio location in the wilderness. Even though he was elsewhere, he strived to have conversations with the center. In this sense, I believe it is hyper-necessary for artists to understand their locations both physically and critically, and to travel somewhere else just to understand where they were. In other words, if an artwork is produced in a studio, I might find it lacking the code meshing of the contexts of different places: it would miss a significant opportunity to address the relationship between an artistic practice and the world at large.
NO: So maybe you are saying you are becoming post-studio? Actually, let me take it back. We are not supposed to be backward-looking and reference art history when we are discussing your progressive artistic philosophy right?
TPQ: You are making me sound pedantic!
NO: My apologies, but I think I get what you are trying to say. I would love to research on Matsuzawa. Back to this body of work. Could I assume it is not done in the studio? Also, I know you just talked about the idea of a sunburn because of the different tones, but what do the scripts symbolize?
TPQ: This work was not executed strictly in the studio, because they lived outside in my backyard for some time. I needed to negotiate with weather, and had to make practical decisions so that the leather would not come into contact with rain or snow. In my opinion, such conversation with nature is crucial. The writing on the leather is self-evidently mine. And as I said, the tonal gradation did not surface because of the application of paint. It came from the stacking of leather, and the area which is exposed to sunlight darkened because of the receptivity of the vegetable-tanned leather. You might also recognize that the boundaries of the color change are not crisp, and it is because these hides are not uniform and have slight indentation, leaving some room for sunlight to slice through. I change the configuration of the placement of the three hides once every three weeks and have been adhering to this schedule without exception since December 13, 2019. The writing, in this sense, exhibits these dates.
NO: So you are saying that the colors are not painted at all? No acrylic or oil paint at all?
TPQ: Absolutely not. I come up with the idea, and the sun provides the magic. I am just a preparator instigating the color change because of my physical arrangement of the leather. It might be too romantic to claim, but I find it very fulfilling to see the leather grow as I intentionally position myself as a spectator. I call such work “prepared” sculpture. Also, I take great pride in the fact that it is always a work-in-progress: as long as the work is exposed to some light, the color will change accordingly. It is true that the process of darkening gets less dramatic as times goes by—for example, the 1st hour of sun exposure will result in a sharper contrast compared to the… wait a minute and let me calculate… compared to the 7000th hour now as we talk when the color change becomes too small to notice—but subtlety takes on new meanings and morphs to minutiae.
NO: Thank you for reminding me of my failure in mathematics in college. I am not sure how your Chinese identity comes to play. What you said seems very Zen to me, because you are refraining from intervening. I also happen to know that the Chinese literati painters in the Ming dynasty were really interested in how a studio practice should constitute a diversity of actions not only limited to painting and calligraphy, but also chess, for instance.
TPQ: I am glad you mentioned it. I have been trying to understand what it means to be a Chinese artist. I am familiar with the wenrenhua, or the literati paintings, and really believe, as I mentioned before, that a studio practice also happens on invisible levels such as pacing and day-dreaming. I do not think maintaining a studio practice is like turning on a switch. It certainly permeates the space of working and areas of living and nature. I guess what I am trying to say is that a studio practice does not need to be site-specific.
NO: So are you actively thinking of Zen Buddhism? How specifically does Asian culture influence your art?
TPQ: I am not sure I over-think about Zen, but I could say that I am very drawn to Tibetan Buddhism and particularly to the act of kora, or pilgrimage circumambulating. My partner and I like to travel, and when we lived in Shanghai, we visited lots of Tibetan regions in China and India. I find their lifestyle simple, mathematical, and serial. What I mean by serial is that they pursue kora on a daily, if not hourly basis, and they trust that the more they circle some sacred sites, the better of a next life they will have. Please pardon my very basic understanding of Tibetan Buddhism, but this concept is radical to me because they are doing work for the next life. Compared to other kinds of Buddhists, Tibetan Buddhists eat meat and consume alcohol, but they believe they can atone for their “sin” because of kora. I am fascinated by this serial way of living, and am speechless due to how plus and minus in life can be captured so tangibly.
NO: This is very good to know. I have traveled to Nepal myself and am humbled by the spirit and the physicality of the pilgrimage.
TPQ: Exactly. I think it might be very possible to trust the unknown now, because it is harder to believe something to be true. After all, we may live in a post-truth era, and our lenses and biases become critical and in a way intertwine with the so-called truth to affect judgements. In my case, I have gradually determined that maybe it is not significant anymore to debate whether I am a Chinese artist working in this country, whether my artwork is political, whether my “prepared” sculpture engages with craft theory. I find it more meaningful now to organize, as Martha Rosler would champion as the gospel truth of an artist’s political responsibility. My goal now, therefore, is to lead my students to live a creative life during this interesting time.