Meng Zhou’s artistic projects draw on analogies of Chinese cultural history and myth. We speak with him to find out more.
A: In Issue 82 of Aesthetica we showed If 1 as well as pieces from the Elysian series. We noted that at the heart of your work a conversation between tradition and modernity, and that you merge and transform classical Chinese symbolism and imagery using Western styles and techniques. Has this always been of importance to you, or did this evolve when you moved away from China?
MZ: I think that this has always been an implicit driver of my work. In recent years the conversation seems to have become more explicit and has come into clearer focus for me. Growing cognizance of the discourses of cultural appropriation adds an extra layer of complexity to the ways I think about what I am doing and why.
A: How often do you return to China?
MZ: It’s really important for me to return at least a couple of times a year to reconnect with my family and with the land. My grandparents, from whom I take much of my inspiration in working with silk, live in the countryside of Zhejiang; I always find it humbling to visit them. I find the rustic simplicity of their lives quite beautiful.
A: Where do you consider home – or perhaps you don’t think of home as being one place?
MZ: “Home” is a really ambivalent concept for me. While I find it easy to be seduced by its associations with comfort and safety, it’s equally important to recognise that any concept of “home” requires an “outside” or an “other” – in this sense the concept of home is a violent kind of gesture. I think of myself as an ethical cosmopolitan; China, as the place where I grew up, is sentimentally important, and I recognise that my obligations to people, to the earth and to ecology extend far beyond its borders.
A: Your studies have been varied, from Fashion Design at the Pratt Institute to a BA in Painting at Camberwell College of Arts and currently completing an MA in Moving Image at Royal College of Art. Has this been a planned journey?
MZ: Haha! No, I was drifting for a little while but I seem to have grabbed onto something big that floats and now I’m going with that. But yes, one always carries one’s experience with them and I often see the modes of working I employed in fashion design unconsciously at work in my art practice now.
A: Does your video work currently take priority in your art practice or does it run parallel to your painting and sculpture work?
MZ: It really runs parallel. I usually couple the videos I make with installation or other works of sculpture and painting. In the process of creation I am always jumping forwards and backwards across the mediums. My aim is to create conversations and conflicts across the mediums and draw out sites of conversation between them.
A: How do you balance your studies with working in such a variety of mediums?
MZ: You know, one of my few criticisms of art education in the UK is that very little emphasis is put on technique. It seems that greater precedence is given over to the theoretical and conceptual issues and material technique takes a back seat. My practice is really rooted in materials and technique and so I’ve had to find other spaces for exploration outside of the academy. In that respect it doesn’t really feel like a balancing act, more that the work that I have done at the RCA has grown out of my personal experimentation with media.
A: Your first solo exhibition in London was 0.064g, held in 2016. Tell us about 0.064g – the significance of the show’s name and how the various mediums used contributed to the messages you wanted to express.
MZ: I’ve got a personal obsession with textiles. In years gone by my grandparents reared silk worms for weaving into silk and today my father still works in a textile factory. 0.064g took me back to the silk worm itself and was named after the weight of a silk filament. I was thinking about how the cocoon could serve as a metaphor for the world in which we live – caught inside an endless and infinitely complex web of information and data. I was also interested in the cocoon as a site of regeneration and renewal, transformation and becoming.
A: How was the experience of preparing for this exhibition?
MZ: I was lucky enough to have worked with the curator Yusi Xiong on the production of 0.064g. Yusi’s contribution to and critiques of my work were truly invaluable. She has the ability to ask the sort of questions which cut to the core of my work and she challenged me to think in ways that I perhaps hadn’t before.
A: How was it different from, for example, preparing for the 2015 Loner exhibition in Shanghai or the current dual exhibition Defibrillation at the United Art Museum in Wuhan?
MZ: Well, I’ve just returned from Wuhan, it’s by far the biggest space I have ever shown in, which was a challenge in and of itself. Much of what I do is quite subtle and, in some ways, quiet. Translating that into a much larger space was quite a task. I’m still learning what works and what doesn’t, and I think I always will be.
What I loved about showing on London’s Southbank was how engaged the public were. Footfall along that stretch of the river meant that there were always people stopping, asking questions and engaging with the work – as an artist that is all you ever really want.
A: Your RCA degree show launched on 22 June. Some artists note that a degree show can be more nerve-wracking than a solo exhibition – what do you think?
MZ: Well, it’s been the culmination of two years of work. The challenge for me has been to tell the story of my two years at the RCA in 10m2; you quickly realise you can’t say everything that you want to say.
You know, I’m trying not to let myself get too stressed about it by remembering that Gavin Turk, an artist whom I really admire, failed his degree on the back of his final show. It’s not all about the piece of paper at the end of it all, it has to be about the journey.
A: And you add exhibitions and awards to the mix! Do you find yourself too busy sometimes?
MZ: I like the analogy of grapevines. Vines produce the best grapes in areas where they are pushed to their ecological limits. I find that a little bit of stress can actually be quite productive – when I’m busy I seem to get more done.
A: What do you have planned for the rest of the year?
MZ: I’m excited to have been given the opportunity of currently doing a residency in rural Ireland and I’m using the time to think more about ecology and multi-species belonging.
A: How do you envision your art practice five years from now?
MZ: Tough question. It’s really hard to say. As an artist my work responds to questions of the time. The world today seems like a more politically uncertain place than ever in the last three decades, so who knows where we’ll be in five years.