18 December 2011
Yan Jun in Singapore: An Interview
Interview with Yan Jun, 28 Oct 2011
I met Yan Jun, the renown sound artist, Noise practitioner, event organiser and all-round ideologue of the current Chinese experimental/avant-garde scene who came to Singapore and performed during the same Sonorous Festival (which Uchihashi Kazuhisa also performed at) organised by LaSalle School of the Arts in Singapore. The interview with Yan Jun was conducted in Chinese and so the following summary of our interview would definitely not be the truest representation of the interesting conversation which transpired between the two of us. There were still many issues which we wanted to discuss but due to time constraint we had to cut short the session and thus I am looking forward to chatting with Yan Jun again in the future if the opportunity arises.
We started the interview with a short chat on Yan Jun’s musical biography when he told me that he sees himself primarily as an event organiser; for the past six years, more than 300 performances were staged by him. On the average he has one gig going on per week, and for a particular six-month period, he actually had two gigs running on a weekly basis. The artists and performers, according to Yan Jun can be largely classified into about 50% Chinese and the other half from abroad. He still defines himself more as an event organiser and record label boss, releasing albums, and not as strictly an artist. He runs the Sub Jam/Kwanyin Records. He is mostly based in Beijing, China but he was awarded Asian Cultural Residency in New York in 2011so he was in NYC for some time as well.
When our conversation moved on to his ideas and concepts on sound art and noise, he became more animated and passionate as he began explaining to me his personal definition of such terms, terminologies and conceptual schema. He feels very strongly about the fact that, today, modern art is very dictated by the canon, conventions and history of western ideas and aesthetics; to him modern sound art or noise is not so much a genre but sound should be treated as a medium, a tool. Sound, noise & sound art should be divorced from their western roots and meanings in the new century when the world has become more globalised.
To him, sound art in recent years is very formalised, formulaic and predictable. If I did not get him too wrongly, sound art today is too academic and elevated to the status of high art which seems contradictory to the original intent of the pioneer practitioners. Noise and sound, in a very hygienic western world in contemporary times seems to need noise to create some form of contrast and source of opposition. This is very different from where he came from, China. He shared with me an anecdote about his own house back home: his house has no ground/earth wiring and thus so a lot of noises/sounds are emitted all around the residence and they sipped into his recordings whenever he does any home recording. Noise is intentionally forged but it is part of the landscape feeding into the artistic eco-system of him and perhaps, for some other artists from China too.
He went on to qualified that in China it is very noisy consistently, and just like on a daily basis when he eats he is also consuming a lot of toxin, the noise/sound pieces which he creates can be seen as a product of his input in all sense of the word.
When I asked him if his ideas and understanding on noise/sound art is a shared one amongst the practitioners in China, he replied that it is more personal than anything else but he revealed that two other artists based in China today do have some mutual similarities in their personal aesthetical conceptions on their art and sound. One such artist is Yao Dajuin, who is actually from Taiwan but is based in China today. Yao is a key player in the Chinese avant-garde/sound scene today and his curated double CD album released on the record label, Post-Concrete, entitled, China – The Sonic Avantgarde, is a clear illustration of Yao’s personal vision of what he views sound art/noise as: field recordings, sound collages and sonic bites which totally rejects the high art, sound art in the museum/art gallery paradigm so fashionable and profitable for the more careerist ones in recent decades. Yao is more interested in the history of listening, auditory experiences and their psycho-social, psycho-geographical relationships than a nicely packaged tour in the white spaces of the halls of western cultural shrines.
The other kindred spriit of Yan Jun is Lin Qi Rui (I hope I got his name correctly, so if I did not do so please drop me a comment and let me know more about him, thanks!) –a Taiwanese noise/sound artist based in China who is very staunchly against the western cultural hegemony in the arts and music. Lin has just finished writing a book in Mandarin, to be published soon. With 800, 000 words in tow, it examines the history and lineage of sound/sound art/noise in the Chinese world.
We went on to discuss about the terminology of modern sound art in China and he hinted that they are perhaps just fads and names merely as before 2005, these activities were sweepingly branded as Noise but post-2005, Sound Art became the acceptable name instead. He did say that China today is maybe Taiwan in the past and thus given time, China would be able to mature and grow more as a site of sound/noise creativity in the near future. Yan Jun also shared that those interested in sound/noise seem to come from the lower classes and many of them are youths living in the urban centres who are, in most part, not connected with the traditional art forms. Yan speculates that Noise to them can be seen as a form of personal projection of their personal environs and place in China today.
We went on to discuss about the perennial search for modernism today. He stresses that even before the 1911 Revolution in China, the obsession with modernity was already there. Today, the Chinese artists are continuing the path towards the push towards modernism; whereas ten years ago, the buzzword was to be the avant-garde and earlier on, to rock was the predominant artistic goal, the mental and psychological desire to stretching the envelope remains, the same today. Many want to be more extreme, more modern and even more avant-garde than the west, where such ideas first germinated. Yan Jun gave the analogy of imitation and even later on iconoclasm as the modus operandi of many artists in China. He even mentioned that it is like a form of artistic devouring of the predecessors, to make these earlier aesthetic travellers part of their own. It should be seen as form of flattery and praise for those who have come before. Right now many in China are not very self-conscious about the entire process and thus it takes time for the Chinese artists to be more sensitive, more cruel and relentless to be, neither Western nor traditionally Chinese, a third path.
Before we were interrupted by the next performance during the night, we compared the western avant-gardist tradition to that of the current Chinese strain; where Dada, Surrealism and Fluxus were a very conscious break from the bourgeois western art world (just like when Yan Jun was in Zurich, the street where the Dadaists staged the Cabaret Voltaire, the main motivation force was to disrupt and upset the quietude and sterility of the place and Europe), in China, they do not need to do so due to the differences in the historical-cultural forces at play in China for the past century.
We ended our interview at this point but from what Yan Jun had discussed, we can perhaps glean better into the developing milieu of the increasingly Chinese-prominent century in the future.