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Emmanuel Bellefroid

The French sinologist was born in 1949, between 1976 and 1981 he worked intermittendly as a translater and expert at the French embassy in Beijing. There he met the painter Li Shuang of the experimental "Stars" group. But as  love affairs between foreigners and Chinese were not tolerated yet by the Chinese authorities at this time, Li was arrested for "hooliganism" and sent to "re-education" for two years. In 1983 though she was allowed to move to France, and Bellefroid got married to her. In 2013 they got divorced.

In the 1980s Bellefroid, under his pseudonyms "Claude Widor" and "Victor Sidane", published several books on the Chinese democracy movement, in 1986 he did related research at the Hoover Instutution in Stanford, California. Later on Bellefroid became active in trade with China, he also run an art gallery in Paris together with Li Shuang.

 

 

Interview with Emmanuel Bellefroid (on April 27, 2014 in his apartment in Paris)

Interviewer (Helmut Opletal): Mr. Bellefroid, you have experienced the Democracy Wall Movement, and you had a chance to be in China during an extraordinary period, starting from 1976?

Emmanuel Bellefroid: Between 1976 to 1981. And I consider this time extraordinary, because all of a sudden it became possible to talk and discuss with the Chinese, they showed no fear any more. I got my first chance to do so in 1978, and we were also eager to talk to them. It became quite natural for them to share their ideas and imaginations, just as if a wall had been torn down. I could also say, the scales fell from my eyes, as I was very politicized through my father. But when I arrived in China in 1978, my ideas had only come from books before. It were the people from the Democracy Wall that opened my eyes to be able to see a true picture of China that we had not been able to realize before.

Interviewer: Do I understand correctly that you came from a communist family?

Bellefroid: Yes, my father was a communist like many intellectuals at that time. But after the events of 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Prague, he started to develop more and more doubts. He had already turned in his party membership card in 1956.

Interviewer:  For you it probably meant that you paid more attention than others to world affairs and social developments. Did your interest for China also stem from this background?

Bellefroid: Of course, and there was also the year 1968, when I got attracted to the ideas and writings of Mao. But not just that, in 1969 I purchased my first Chinese textbooks, and I soon found myself in a course to practice the difficult phonetics of Chinese. But to be honest, I wanted to learn the language mainly to be able to read Mao’s works from the original. It may seem a bit odd, but that’s what it was.

Interviewer: In Beijing you worked at the French embassy.

Bellefroid: I was attached to the press and documentation department, but I also did translations. I had earlier spent some time in Singapore, Japan and Taiwan, I was writing my thesis at the same time, and my Chinese was quite acceptable. At the embassy I was the "sinologist on duty" which also meant that I was regularly sent to the Democracy Wall to follow the ongoing debates there. But I was also myself completely carried away by the events. It was my job to observe and report to the embassy what was really going on in China.

Interviewer: So how did you realize what was really happening in the heads of the Chinese, at the end of 1978?

Bellefroid: As I said, as early as in 1976, I had a chance to talk openly to some sons of high-ranking officials in the Shanghai Peace Hotel. I think they took us for spies, as they offered to tell us internal secrets of the Communist Party, even from the Military Commission, in exchange for money. I reported this to our ambassador, but he thought that was far too sensitive for him. He suggested that I brought them in contact with the Americans, and so I did. But this was actually before my time.

I left China again and came back in 1978. I do not know what has become of these people. But when I returned in 1978, the outside façade of Chinese propaganda had completely collapsed. Through the wall posters and personal conversations, it all of a sudden became clear that much of what the official propaganda had presented to us, were Potemkin villages that covered up the nasty realities of a terrible dictatorship in China. It were people like Wei Jingsheng who told me first about the Great Famine of the early 1960s, the cannibalism and selling of children in Anhui Province where he used to live at that time. He did not speak badly about the Cultural Revolution though, his father was a high-ranking official, he himself was with the Red Guards, on the good side so to say. Of course he did tell us about the Cultural Revolution. What shocked me most were the reports about massacres and all those other follies of Mao Zedong.

Interviewer: At the Democracy Wall, could you openly talk to them and keep contacts, or was it only when nobody else was present?

Bellefroid: No, the activists were really looking for contacts with us, they wanted to talk to us as soon as they had realized that we spoke Chinese. Wei also asked us to speak out for Fu Yuehua, a woman that had demonstrated for those people who were victims of the Cultural Revolution. She was arrested in February 1979 I think [it was actually on January 9], and in March she was to be put on trial. Wei Jingsheng wanted to record the court proceedings, and I procured for him a tape recorder for this purpose. He published a transcript of the trial in number 3 or 4 of his journal "Tansuo" [Exploration]. [It was actually not the trial that was recorded, but a conversation by representatives of five independent journals with prison and Police officials on March 15. The editors inqired about the circumstances of the detention of Fu Yuehua and pressed for her release. Wei Jingsheng prepared the transcript for the number 4 of "Tansuo", but it was not published any more because of Wei's arrest a few days later.]

It was for this kind of things those people sometimes required support from us, and we of course knew that this had some effects to the public. The same was true for the reports by international journalists. So our doing was not so different from theirs. I felt a bit like that small number of foreign correspondents who spoke Chinese. But they were often more interested in what was going on in the Central Committee or in the Chinese military campaign against Vietnam. Which also became fatal for Wei Jingsheng, as some foreign journalists were more interested to hear from him about the Chinese military strategy or whether their troops had stopped at the Vietnamese border or actually crossed the line. In his trial later, Wei was accused of having passed on such details in the conversations. That’s why I say the journalists were less interested in the ideas of the young Chinese.

For someone like me though they were awfully interesting, as the rebellion of the young Chinese reminded me of my own youth, of my own struggling with Mao’s ideas which I had not yet completely abandoned. In such way their path resembled mine to some extent, although I was slower than them, they were faster, one of the things that fascinated me with this young generation.

We would not invite people like Ren Wanding or Xu Wenli to our home, but we took them in our car, that is where we discussed with them. It was an advantage that we had our own automobile as it allowed us to talk to them without being disturbed. Marie Holzman [Bellefroid‘s wife at that time] says in one of her books that she drove the vehicle, but actually she did not have a license and therefore depended on me.

Our first meeting with Wei Jingsheng took place in a Russian restaurant by the Beijing Zoo, it was called Moscow, and Wei ordered a tomato omelet, something very exotic for a Chinese. But we did not bring them to our apartment, that would have been too risky for them, as we lived in a well-guarded diplomatic compound where the Chinese elevator attendants closely observed all the comings and goings, and soldiers guarded the outside gates to the compound. None of our Chinese friends dared to go in, and we also did not want to put them at risk. But I have visited Xu Wenli at his home, and I think I also met Wei Jingsheng and his Tibetan girlfriend once at their apartment, in a Chinese environment.

Interviewer: But there were other people you had particular interest in.

Bellefroid: Later on it was the artists I felt attracted to. The political activists came first, they were the leaders of the movement. In Wei Jingsheng’s journal "Tansuo" there were four people in charge, not many actually. After Wei’s arrest it was Lu Lin who continued to publish the magazine. Later he turned to do business, but this did not save him from prison either. To my knowledge he still lives in China, he has never left the country. Later I got in touch with artists and the people of "Beijing zhi Chun" [The Spring of Peking] and "Jintian" [Today], a literary magazine that carried articles by the sculptor Wang Keping. And in 1979 I assisted the first poetry recitals in some of the parks of Beijing.

Interviewer: When you met important figures of the Democracy Movement, did you get the feeling that this movement would just go on, or did you already fear that it could only last for a few weeks, and these people would soon get arrested? And what did the activists think themselves?

Bellefroid: I think they were fully aware of the situation, they all believed that they would soon be detained. As Western observers we knew about Russian dissidents and the political opposition in Eastern Europe. They made us think that they and their Samizdat press had succeeded in moving their countries a bit towards democracy. This actually happened later on, even though dissidents only came to power themselves in Czechoslovakia and Poland. The examples of Eastern Europe made us think that this could happen in China as well, but the Chinese activists felt differently. They thought they were going to sacrifice themselves because it was a suitable historic moment.

In 1978/79 it was difficult to foresee the future. The activists showed a lot of courage, but it was the intrepidity of the youth, when those who had joined the movement saw themselves as future martyrs. They had no illusions, and it actually became a reality that most of them were to disappear in prison for many years. Wei Jingsheng was sentenced to 15 years in jail, although later, when he was already in the US, he told me that he had actually believed that he could capitalize on the factional fights inside the Communist Party. In fact reformers around Deng Xiaoping did want to use the support from the street to counter the conservatives in the Party. Wei Jingsheng knew that, but he kept his illusions much later. When he was in prison, he still believed that Party Chairman Jiang Zemin would send somebody to negotiate with him his release.

After all, the dissidents were small isolated groups who did take up of some of the Chinese people’s aspirations, but within a very limited frame. The movement was basically restricted to Beijing. They got a chance to speak out openly because Deng Xiaoping wanted to exploit them, and because they had caused some echo abroad. The foreigners gave them the feeling that they stood on the right side, they also gave their ideas international publicity and provided some protection for them. But Deng Xiaoping needed the Democracy Wall for just about a year, then he had it moved to the far-off Yuetan Park in western Beijing. 

Interviewer: Did the activists realize that they were used?

Bellefroid: Yes, I do think so. All of them had gone through the Cultural Revolution and they knew the games that the CCP was playing. They knew about the earlier Anti-Rightist Movement and the Hundred Flowers Campaign that had all become pitfalls for the critics who had dared to speak out. So they really could not have had any illusions, and in fact they openly spoke about this. They all knew their party history well enough, they were aware of what had happened in the twenty foregoing years and during the Cultural Revolution.

Interviewer: Did you ever feel that the activists of the Democracy Movement were in contact with people from inside the system? Did they communicate with them? Were there actually officials who talked to the activists? Was there even something like a dialogue?

Bellefroid: That did happen occasionally, but not on a broader or general scale. Those people from Peking University [during the 1980 electoral campaign] had contacts with officials, and the artist of the "Stars" group negotiated with representatives of the official academies and artists’ associations. The political activists were quite well informed though. They all read "Cankao Xiaoxi" [an "internal" newspaper for cadres that reported on international political events and reprinted extracts from foreign news reports], and some received insight information from their parents who sometimes were officials with access to classified documents. This also sealed Wei Jingsheng’s fate. But in general there were no direct contacts with the authorities.

Interviewer: Did some officials warn the activists by telling them, this you may do, but not that?

Bellefroid: I think in 1978/79 the main editors of the independent journals had good access to information, but not more than that. They knew about the factional disputes inside the Party, but I do not think that they were directly encouraged from inside. They rather made use of the space that had opened up when at the end of 1978 many victims of the Cultural Revolution came to Beijing to demand their rehabilitation. In fact the "Qimeng She" [Enlightment Society] people also belonged to those "petitioners", something that actually had started as early as 1976.

Interviewer: Have you met the "Qimeng She" group around Huang Xiang? And was Huang Xiang for you more an artist or a political mind?

Bellefroid: I did get to know them, when they posted a giant dazibao in Beijing. Huang Xiang appeared to me more like a writer, a poet, but the group also published very political texts. When they arrived to Beijing [from Guizhou] they also came to demand rehabilitation. I think they wrote the first dazibao when the Xidan Democracy Wall did not exist yet. You might know that the pseudonym "Victor Sidane" which I also used for some publications later, was derived from the "Xidan" intersection? Anyway, they were the first group I met, I did not get to know them so well as they were a bit timid, but they still dared to post a dazibao on a wall at the Western side of Tiananmen Square. I was really impressed by that.

Interviewer: It is well known, and you also said so, that foreign reporters amplified information about what was going on in Beijing, and that news about the events got back to China, for example through the classified internal media that reprinted Western news reports. So my question is, did foreign institutions such as the embassies attempt to influence or support the Democracy Movement? Maybe from your own position you have gained some insight into that.

Bellefroid: I can only speak about the French Embassy and foreigners in China. I was one of the rather well informed at that time, I knew more than the Americans, because I spoke Chinese and had a very natural access to people. I do not know what exactly the Americans did, but as far as the French Embassy is concerned, they have never charged me with any specified duty in this respect. And I was only a low-ranking member of the embassy and I did not pursue a diplomatic career. I was rather myself fascinated and carried away by the events. I have later been accused of having financed the Democracy Movement, but the only thing we have done was that we paid higher subscription fees for the journals. Foreigners were asked to pay something like ten times the rate for Chinese. But we are talking about a few yuan. Maybe we paid one yuan [around 0,7 US dollar at the time] for a copy of "Tansuo" or "Si Wu Luntan" [April 5th Forum] while Chinese were only asked to pay one or five fen. We had spontaneously agreed to do so, but to my knowledge this was the only form of support by foreigners to the Chinese Democracy Movement.

Interviewer: Was this also true for the production of the journals?

Bellefroid: Absolutely. "Tansuo" and "Si Wu Luntan" were in fact mimeographed in the same place. The texts were first written on wax stencils and then manually printed page by page on a rather simple device. All magazines were produced this way, with the only exception of one issue of "Beijing zhi Chun" that was produced on a regular printing machine. All the later issues were also mimeographed. They only possessed these very primitive tools, there was no outside support. The only equipment that I once supplied to them was a tape recorder which they used for interviews or to record the demonstration on October 1, 1979. It was the only tape recorder in the hands of the activists. Maybe with the exception of Peking University where some foreign students had audio recordings made [during the election campaign in 1980]. I used to have copies of some of these tapes. But the diplomats, as far as I know, including the Americans, never supplied them with anything.

Interviewer: I am asking because I do read sometimes that the Democracy Movement had received some outside backing.

Bellefroid: No, certainly not. Maybe we should have done that, although I am not sure what we could have changed. My support was only personal, I have never been told to act in a certain way. I had received from a Chinese before – I may tell that now – an offer to bug the Military Commission with microphones. Our ambassador was quite indignant over this, I am not sure what the Americans eventually did, but I think they accepted the offer. In my view the Chinese Democracy Movement was not so different from that in Eastern Europe. The foreigners mainly served to disseminate the information, but they did not manipulate the movement.

Interviewer: Let’s talk about the artists now. How did you get in contact with them?

Bellefroid: That happened later. The first exhibition by the "Xingxing" [Stars] group took place in a park just outside the Forbidden City [former imperial palace]. The artists in some way resembled the democracy activists, they were open and eager to learn, they were interested in fine arts books as they had nothing the like at that time in China. The sculptor Wang Keping who was the spokesman of the group and held contacts with foreigners, was actually a very political mind. The objects he showed at the first two "Stars" exhibitions, were certainly inspired by politics, and some of his public statements seemed very daring. He could have easily been arrested just for that. But he was eventually spared such experience. It was through Wang Keping that I have met the others.

Interviewer: Did this happen during that first open air exhibition?

Bellefroid: It was later. I only learned about this spontaneous and quickly prohibited open air show - that also led to the big demonstration - the day after. The paintings that had been attached to the outside fence of the Beijing Fine Arts Gallery, had already been removed and brought to the interior of the building. I was busy with other things at the embassy, so I only found out what had happened a day later – maybe it was from Xu Wenli or some other activist.

The artists and political activists were closely connected, some of the artists had started to provide illustrations for the journals, mainly for "Jintian". Through this Wang Keping met [the writer] Bei Dao, Ma Desheng also produced illustrations for "Jintian", he also played a role in the un-authorized exhibition, and so did Qu Leilei, Wang Keping or Yan Li. We quickly established an intimate relationship with them. The political activists hat started their movement six months earlier, the artists founded their group only in spring 1979.

Wei Jingsheng got arrested in March, he was sentenced in October. At the end of 1979, the "Stars" were finally authorized to hold their first official exhibition in a park [a pavilion of Beijing’s Beihai Park], the second followed in 1980 in the Beijing Fine Arts Gallery. The artists benefited from the factional feuds in the CCP when Deng Xiaoping tried to isolate Hua Guofeng and the so-called Leftists.

The artists also visited us in our home, something the political activists had not dared. With the artists we celebrated, drank, danced and sang together. Dancing and Coke was what they enjoyed most. The "Stars" were very open, but some artists did not fully realize what could happen to them. Police in fact put them into the same bag as the political dissenters, they were considered just as dangerous as the activists from the Democracy Wall. So they were in fact taking a great risk.

Later we met with them more openly, some photos show us together with a dozen of them. We organized dance parties under the sky in the old summer palace Yuanmingyuan. There are many pictures that show our intimate relationship with the "Stars" group at the time. Everything seemed very relaxed then, nobody was worried except for the more political minds like Wang Keping and Ma Desheng, and maybe Huang Rui. Huang Rui is a very skeptical person, on the other hand he sometimes does frightening things and takes risks at the last moment. When you ask his opinion, he always wants to step back and do nothing. But at the end he always participates. This was also the case at the negotiations with the art officials. In the debates he seemed very restrained and close to the rather moderate people of "Beijing zhi Chun". Wang Keping and Ma Desheng were much closer to "Tansuo" oder "Si Wu Luntan" who held the most radical positions. But Huang Rui was considered the epicenter of the "Stars" group I have never been to his home though, but I have been to Qu Leilei’s, a son of a high-ranking official who had a seat I the Central Committee or something like that. We did exchanges for some of his paintings, as the artists did not want to sell picture at the time.

I first wanted to buy paintings from him, but I did not know what price he could ask, so we agreed to a barter, and he asked me for a refrigerator in exchange for some of his works. This was not all that easy. The Chinese did not possess fridges then, I had to buy one in the so-called Friendship Store using "waihuiquan" [foreign exchange coupons] that only foreigners could obtain. We then transported it to his house on the roof of our car. For Wang Keping I had to purchase a stereo recorder from Hong Kong with two big loudspeakers. It was the latest cry then to walk in the street with one like these. He traded one of his works from the "Stars" exhibition for it.

Only later they started to sell some of their paintings and art works. Ma Desheng wanted to fix standard prices for all them, but his ideas were completely unreal. A sculpture, an oil painting, no matter which size, or a wood cut print of which ten or even fifty copies had been made, should all cost the same. I tried to explain to him that a work of art that has been printed several times, could not fetch the same price as a unique original, but he still did not want to believe it. So we agreed on 300 yuan [almost 200 US dollars then], no matter whether it was a painting by Huang Rui, a wooden sculpture by Wang Keping or a wood cut print by Ma Desheng of which 50 copies existed. For the Chinese this still constituted a small fortune. 300 yuan were the equivalent of six average monthly salaries, Li Shuang for example only earned 34 yuan at that time. So we bought from them and continued to barter with them, as 300 yuan was not much to us, just about 300 French Francs. But in any case the prices were pure fantasy.

Interviewer: Did only foreigners buy from them?

Bellefroid: That's what is was, but this is true for all of modern Chinese art, I might even go as far as to say that the whole "modern art" in China is a Western invention. After 1989, but starting as early as 1985 when the first Chinese graduated from the fine arts academies that had re-opened a few years before, it was the Westerners who decided what they liked and what not. The young artist quickly discovered this market during the 1980s and 90s when they realized that they could easily sell to foreigners. That’s why I think that Chinese art during that period was a hundred percent Western creation; it was them who shaped the market for Chinese arts. Only the "Stars" were not focused on the Western market. When the foreigners arrived to stock up on Chinese art, the "Stars" had already left. Only those who had their workshops in Beijing or who were attached to one of the arts academies were able to benefit.

The "Stars" have missed that train. When they organized their demonstrations and exhibitions, they have certainly achieved some political goals, but they did not benefit from the emerging art market. Not even Huang Rui who by all means has tried hard succeeded in that. The only exception became Ai Weiwei, who had left early for the United States and was able to establish his contacts with art dealers there. He is the only one of the "Stars" who was really successful when he later returned to China. Maybe also Huang Rui to some extent. Huang already had a clear idea about his career, but he went to Japan, when Ai Weiwei was in New York. Japan was more like an exile for a Chinese artist as nobody there was interested. Only later he tried to hold an exhibition at the big art gallery of Tokyo. So looking back, it was important to be in the right place at the right time.

But this was the case for other big artists as well. Had Picasso not been in Paris but remained in Barcelona, he would not have become Picasso. That’s what I wanted to say on foreign influences. Ma Desheng has opened up to the world, and the world has opened up to him. In the arts China has opened up, but China has also been made to open up, a bit like in the Opium Wars of the 1840s and 1850s. The difference is that the Chinese themselves were now eager to open their gates.

Interviewer: Nevertheless, the "Stars" also had considerable success in China, tens of thousands of visitors flocked to their exhibition?

Bellefroid: That is true, it was a big success, but they did not sell anything there. Not a single one has sold a painting, as there was no one collecting art at that time. This greatly influenced their artistic ideas, some of their works became very "political" that way. I have looked through the visitors’ book where many people have left their commentaries. I think the original of the book remains with Huang Rui now. From many remarks by the guests you can see that people mainly interpreted the political intentions of the artists, and sometimes the provocation they saw in nude paintings in the exhibition. That a work of art also sells, was far from their thinking, although not completely excluded. But one has to say, there had never existed a real art market in China after 1949.

Interviewer: Looking back at your conversations with the artists, do you think they were aware of the role of the foreigners, of the fact that they primarily produced for them? Except for the beginnings maybe, when they tried to break out from the narrow framework of Socialist Realism?

Bellefroid: I think they got to realize that quickly. Like Bo Yun who always carried a few canvases with him, when he showed up in the diplomatic compound. Still most of them just wanted to be artists, they sold very little. There were also very few potential buyers, at least in 1981, when I was still in China. That only changed after 1989. There were no commercial art galleries, one could only display works in museums. So it was a museum or nothing. Only the art academies such as Beijing’s Central Art Academy, possessed their own galleries that exhibited the paintings of their students. The Central Academy only re-opened in 1980 to hold entry exams for new students. But none of the "Stars" was among them.

Interviewer: In your opinion, why did the "Stars" group disperse so quickly after 1980?

Bellefroid: I do not think they dispersed, actually they kept close contact for quite some time, at least those who stayed in China. Some remained there all the time like Li Yongcun [Bo Yun] and Qu Leilei who stayed at least during the 80s. Ma Desheng and Wang Keping only left in the mid-80s, Wang in 1984 when he got married. Yan Li also stayed at first. They continued trying to organize exhibitions, but often they were ordered to close them down again the very day of their opening.

Even later, when they had in fact become dispersed all over the world, to the US, to France, and partly within China, they managed to organize collective exhibitions that took place for their tenth and fifteenth anniversaries. I think this is extraordinary. It even reminds me a bit of the Surrealists of the 1930s who were also a group that produced visual art and literature at the same time. One reason for the "Stars" to stay together, could have been the difficulty to achieve success as individuals, as they had become famous as a group. And they have always dreamt to come together again for their twentieth, thirtieth, fortieth anniversaries.

Interviewer: How do you view the artistic value of the works that the "Stars" produced at the time?

Bellefroid: I believe some of them had what it takes to make a career like Ai Weiwei’s.

Interviewer: But Ai Weiwei became famous much later, at that time he did not play a key role, but remained rather marginal?

Bellefroid: That is because he moved to the US early, he was already in New York when the first "Stars" exhibition took place in Beijing [Ai Weiwei actually went to New York in 1981], he could not even take part in the opening. But what he does today is very close to the spirit and the original idea of the "Stars" which is very political. Also Huang Rui has not changed a lot, they are even now some sort of dissidents in their hearts, and that explains why they continue to be blacklisted, including Li Shuang. Through Ai Weiwei they are still feeling the spirit of their youth, if we may say so. Ai Weiwei is a special case of course, with his personal experience when he had to follow his father [the famous poet] Ai Qing to Xinjiang where he was ill-treated and violated. Therefore I say that Ai Weiwei continues to incarnate the spirit of the "Stars", although his participation in the group remained limited because he had left for the US at an early stage.

Also Mao Lizi who had never received a proper artistic training, was very talented. The academies were closed during the Cultural Revolution, but Mao Lizi’s example proves that one still could become an excellent artist, and Mao certainly is one. Li Shuang like a few others only received some private instruction when she lived in the countryside in the 70s. There she painted post-impressionist landscapes, the Russian school. Most of the artists got interested in very specific styles such as Cubism or Surrealism. One could say therefore that Chinese painting was greatly influenced by Russian professors, there was no post-impressionist past, and in the 1980s they all at a sudden found themselves with Picasso and the Surrealists. That is what they tried to follow up in their exhibition, what influenced them. At first they tried to catch up on what they had missed out, but then they quickly surged ahead their own ways, most of them at least, except for a few who remained focused on the expectations of the foreigners, and mainly produced works with a striking political flair in "révo.cul." style [a pun, as "révo.cul." in French is an abbreviation for “cultural revolution”, but also sounds like "revolution in the ass"] .

Maybe you have heard that I used to run an art gallery in Paris. A good artist I have in mind at this point is Wang Guangyi, who was at the origin of the "révo.cul." style with his famous series "Great Criticism". He made all of his career abroad, but he always liked to make fun of the foreigners, in all possible senses.

I had planned an exhibition with him, paid his ticket and his stay in France. From photos he had sent to me, I had arranged a catalogue that was ready for print, the paintings he should bring along himself at his arrival. So when we met him at the airport, we asked, where are your suitcases? And he just answered, I think my paintings are not all that interesting, we should do something more modern, avant-gardistic, such as a giant neon installation high above the Champs Elysées.

I had an outburst of rage, as the opening of the exhibition was planned for two weeks later. But I eventually told him, you are just going to redo your paintings for this exhibition in Paris. We put you in a workshop, we will help you, but you will not leave until you have finished. Li Shuang did the primers, and he painted everything again, in Ma Desheng’s studio that he did not use himself at the time. We more or less locked him up, and two weeks later everything was ready for the exhibition.

 [The original interview was conducted in French. It has been slightly shortened and edited for this translation.]

 


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