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Art of Pianzi: Psychedelic Cats, Buddhist Classics, and a Human Face Abacus

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Pianzi is a human artist. By that I mean, unlike so many artists you might encounter, he makes absolutely no attempt to shroud himself in any air of mystery, or status, or intangibility of spiritual essence/universal being. No, the former butcher is down to earth, pragmatic, and easy to talk to.

These base tenets of his character do admittedly clash with the work he produces. His near-psychedelic, dreamlike pieces offer a peek into a new world across a diverse range of mediums. Whether he’s working in paints, or woodblock prints, or photos, or projections, or projection photos, or woodblock print paintings, there is a distinct thread of connectivity running through them that gives them a unified Pianzi feel. Sometimes he accomplishes that connection through aesthetics, and other times through recurring themes (cats, Chinese characters, nude women, the abacus, and Pianzi’s smiling, circular face are all items you’re likely to find in a piece by the artist).

We sat down with Pianzi in his Shanghai studio space at M50 to talk about his work, his childhood, and the changing nature of China’s art scene.

RADII: Thanks for making time to chat with us.

Pianzi: Of course. I tend to smoke in here, do you mind if I have a cigarette?

RADII: Go ahead. So first off, can you introduce yourself?

Pianzi: My name’s Pianzi. I’m from Kunming in Yunnan province, and moved to Shanghai in 2002. In 2003 I found this studio space, and made the transition to become a professional artist.

RADII: What was that like, growing up in Kunming?

Pianzi: I grew up all my life in Kunming, until my 20’s, when I left. Since then I haven’t spent much time in Kunming, just spend some time here, spend some time there. But these days I just stay in Shanghai. In my hometown, the weather is great – every season is like spring. Ten years ago Kunming was a great place, but recently there’ve been these efforts to make all the cities the same. They’re losing what makes them unique, so I don’t like it as much.

RADII: What’s the art scene like out there?

Pianzi: Basically nothing. Well, there’s a decent amount of painters. There are painters and colleges where some art students study, but the city’s not huge, and neither is the art community.

RADII: When did you know you wanted to become an artist?

Pianzi: Since the eighties, I really wanted to be an artist. But back then I was far from it — I used to have a really average job, I was a butcher. While I was working that job, I started learning to paint, and create things. I really hoped that I would be able to make a living just by my art alone. Then in the ‘90s, I left that job to make it happen. But I wasn’t successful at first. I started doing other things to fill in the gaps. I sold designer clothes, I opened a coffee shop…I did a lot of jobs, all in the pursuit of being an artist full time. When I got to Shanghai in 2002 I found this studio space, and decided this was my opportunity to make the transition.

RADII: Was that a tough decision to make?

Pianzi: No way. Definitely not. China’s conditions at the time weren’t like now. At that time, this space was only 2000 RMB per month. I thought, 2000 a month, no problem. Not like now — more than a decade has passed, and the cost of living in China is becoming more and more expensive. It’s been getting harder to make that balance work.

RADII: You’re telling me. Moving on to your art itself — your work spans a lot of different mediums, but is still very cohesive in style. Could you tell me about that, and about what drives you to work across so many mediums?

Pianzi: That’s an easy one. When you’re making something, you might have a lot of different ideas. Depending on what I want to convey, it’ll affect the form the piece takes. Take this one for example:

I could paint this, but why? It wouldn’t have the same feel, the same meaning. It’s much more interesting this way. I cooked the food, photographed it, projected it onto the model, then photographed her. I could have painted the same thing, but this is more suitable. If I think of a new idea, I put it in my hat, and wait until the medium appears, whether it’s photography, painting, sculpture, film…I think oh, I could use this to get it out!  Just like that.

RADII: Well said. I also noticed your work features a lot of recurring themes — could you tell me about that?

Pianzi: I think a lot of artists feel this way. They find a vehicle for their idea, they use it once, twice, but maybe it’s still not enough. They feel they still need more of it, they need more in order to get the idea out of them. For example, my abacus.

A Chinese proverb is written nearby: “Man makes his small calculations, heaven has its big abacus.”

I drew on this theme heavily for ten years, between 2002 and 2012. At the same time, I was working on new ideas, like the nude projections of Chinese dishes, or other themes like the yin yang. I think every artist has this kind of habit.

RADII: Can you tell us some more about some of these pieces?

Pianzi: Here’s something new I’m working on. All these paintings are done with Chinese pu’er tea. This one is of Chuck Close, the American artist. This one is Woody Allen.

RADII: Who’s this one?

“Hot Girl”

Pianzi: This one’s just called “Hot Girl.” I used Chinese characters to write it as 哈特狗 (ha te gou). I can’t write in English, but I know what a hot girl is. Today I’ve just been doing some funny pieces, like this — do you know Jack Ma? I call this one “Hot Man” (哈特门 ha te men). So it’s a joke — “Hot Girl” is looking for “Hot Man,” gou is looking for men. [Note: this is a play on words, gou meaning “dog,” and men meaning “door.” The dog is looking for the door.]

“Hot Man”

RADII: These are awesome. And what’s going on in this picture?

Pianzi: These two girls on the outside are twins, from Hungary. The girl in the middle is Brazilian. She came to Shanghai at 15 years old to work as a model. They got to know me and my studio, and we took this picture together. Three beautiful women, but the little kid in the back is me. This photo was taken when I was very small. At that time, I was making trouble. When classes got out, I went into the bathroom to go write out Maoist graffiti. They sent us all down to the countryside, from Kunming we moved out to the rural country. This picture of me was taken out in the village, so I included that youthful image together with the rest.

RADII: That’s really interesting. Can you tell me, what’s changed in the past decade in China’s art scene?

Pianzi: I’d say we’ve seen the changes quite clearly. In the early 2000’s, on a surface level, it seemed modern art was exploding. You, you, you, everybody wants to do modern art. But the understanding wasn’t totally there, and a lot of the work wasn’t mature yet. In the past ten years, we’ve seen a lot of Chinese artists taking ownership of their native culture, incorporating things like Chinese characters into their work and creating something new. The methodology itself has also become much more mature.

RADII: What do you hope your art will accomplish?

Pianzi: That people will buy it! It’s very simple.

RADII: Fair. Why do you make art?

Pianzi: There’s no “why.” It’s a way of life for me. To go back to doing something else, I feel it’s impossible. Now I can only keep going, making art. So I’ll continue to do this.

RADII: Last question: Do you have any message for our readers overseas? Any bits of wisdom you want to convey?

Pianzi: I would say, try to understand China. Come here for yourself. Talk to everyday Chinese people, that’s how you’ll get the true, authentic understanding. There’s no other way. I won’t try to say “oh, China is this, or that” — it’s all bullshit. If you haven’t come to China, you won’t know. What about China’s government? What about China’s culture? Isn’t it very scary?  Not necessarily. You’ll have to come here for yourself and find out.

 

Photographer and Interview Assistant – Amber Mraihi

Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.

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