Last year I met Paulette Richards on NIADA Conference. She is a very talented person who is not only a doctor of literature and she is proficiency in French and Spanish, but she is also a professional dancer. However, she's been working on Puppet Art these years. Meanwhile, she wrote many quality theses about Doll Art. Also, I saw many interesting puppet videos she made during the Conference.
It's because we were all newbies on the NIADA Conference. So we were hanging out together in those days. Of course, we exchanged our opinions about doll art a lot. Since I came back from US, we keep in touch by e-mails. Paulette had a great idea that she wanted to make an interview to me for knowing about our art more. I appreciated our conversations, for I could organize my thoughts clearly by this kind of disscution. Most importantly, I defined clearer about our art style from her point of view.
Talk to Dr. Richards - About Chinese Aesthetic Mood
Paulette: The sculptures from “The Birds,” “Insects,” and “Groups” include no human figures. Each one gives character to the creatures but they are not necessarily anthropomorphic. The virtuoso modeling of scenes in miniature reflects a deep reverence for the natural world. If I could not go outside in nature, having a miniature world like this to contemplate inside my home would be very restful. All of your work shares this serene feeling. Looking at them is like stopping to take a breath of fresh air or taking a few moments of soothing meditation in the midst of a hectic day. Are you working in a tradition of contemplative art or are you consciously forging a new path?
Zora: If you are familiar with Chinese traditional paintings, especially in ink landscape paintings, you might recognize a similar aesthetic mood that is like our works. I particularly appreciate this kind of philosophical ink landscape paintings. It shapes an infinite and vast spaces by lots of negative spaces (intentionally leaving blank areas on the margin of the paintings) with virtual and real techniques of drawing. You could not only see richness and comprehensiveness of the boundless universe from these paintings, though they are just drawn with a single color, but you could also feel a philosopher's loneliness and thinking. Besides that, most ink landscape paintings actually are not large, and I'm always surprised when I see the original works that even miles of landscape could be contained in such small sizes. However, I hadn't seen anyone describe this kind of aesthetic mood with sculptural language before we started this art form. Actually, there is a tension between metaphysical artistic conception and pragmatic handicrafts, but I think it must be interesting to combine them as one. In fact, practicability is not a required attribute of handicrafts. Any of the techniques are just tools to express artistic conceptions. It should be said my mom's marvelous talents and my comprehension about art as well as a strong desire of expression sparked us to open a new path unconsciously.
Elves Vale | Groups - Knights
Paulette: Some of your figures are dressed in costumes of modern women but they never appear in settings of the modern, urbanized world. Why do your characters have such a strong relationship to nature?
Zora: First of all, this world has already been polluted by industrial and urbanized development, and we just grew up in such a messy world. Frankly speaking, we would be depressed if we had to express urbanized life in art. Compared to realistic life, our work actually implies an attitude that avoids all mainstream values but immerses viewers in our own world. It's a bit like a healing. For us, it's like a wonderful healing that we can get inner peace and energy when we get inspiration and strength from nature and then to express them through a form of visual art. It's an intimate expression, but it might strike an empathetic chord in the viewers. What we want and what we want to express depend on what we don't actually have.
Second, I particularly appreciate the Taoist idea that heaven and man are united as one or "harmony between man and nature". "Heaven and Man" is the basic implication of Chinese philosophy and aesthetic, which is also the principal difference of oriental culture and western culture. One of meanings of "Heaven" is nature. This subject is quite large and complicated, and there are plenty of writings about it, but this fundamental thought permeates every aspect of Chinese culture and art. If you are familiar with Chinese traditional paintings, you might find out the idea of "harmony between man and nature" is always given primacy. "Chinese artistic conception" is one of the products of the thought of "Heaven and Man". It is the highest state of being pursued by Chinese artists. The Chinese artistic conception means a harmonious atmosphere and a space available to imagine. Certainly, cities are also spaces, but whatever how big they are, the cities cannot offer you a free feeling as much as the nature gives you. Nature is a so wide a space that seems as if you could fly as free as a bird.
Furthermore, I don’t like to emphasize the feeling of “doll” that arises when the figure just stands there alone. As the deity over all creatures, the strength of man is beyond any doubt, but I don’t think man is quite charming without nature as an entirety. That's why I incorporated dolls into relatively unified environments. The inputs of figures and settings are the same in our work, but it doesn’t mean the dolls are secondary in our works. In my opinion, figures and nature complement each other. I point this out, because most doll artists don’t accept it. I’ve seen lots of dolls so far and no matter whether Chinese artists made them or not, the dolls just stand there alone without environments. Dolls like this are a “tradition” in the doll world I hoped, however, to explore a new path. To be exact, we might not really be doll artists, but I’m not sure if we belong with other types of artists either. Anyway, I hope to develop something new from traditions. Actually, I found out some artists have consciously created environments for their dolls more or less. It’s like a little girl has a doll but she also wants to give her doll a colorful life. A doll house can meet these girls’ wishes, but it’s another art category. Well, this is just a metaphor. My point is that, from a technical perspective, now that doll artists can do it, why not to explore a richer and more interesting doll world? In my opinion, there is no right or wrong art, but good or bad.
"Aesthetic Mood" is not strange to Chinese people, but it's hard to find one or two proper words to outline its meaning in English. All of translations I can gather are like "aesthetic mood", "artistic conception" and "creative concept", none of which can summarize a sense of space that is mixed with nature and poetry, which Chinese people aspire. It's easy to understand if we only say nature or poetry. As far as I know, there are tons of western artists who focus on describing the nature and their works are beautiful as well. The difference is that Western artists value the expressions of artistic language more, but Chinese artists pursue a kind of philosophical sense of time and space. However, art is beyond boundaries. Now that the "Aesthetic Mood" is the highest level of aesthetics for Chinese, then when we see a Chinese artwork with "Aesthetic Mood" is no language and cultural barriers, just like Paulette felt. If we have to discuss it, then actually the question is where the "Aesthetic Mood" came from?
The paintings of Chinese artist – Ni Zan (1301-1374)
Female Country | Destiny - Seeking
In fact, I didn't think about theory thing too much in creating. I just followed my heart. Actually, the word of "Aesthetic Mood" came to our minds when we finished our work. This discovery was not only surprised ourselves, but it's also amazed our audience. This kind of beauty is like a cultural gene flows in our blood, which is the beauty that each Chinese can understand, is everyone who loves nature can feel. When I brought such a "Aesthetic Mood" to attend NIADA, I got appreciation from NIADA's artists, meanwhile, I felt a subtle conflict.
When we say that we understand a piece of artwork is usually a perceptual experience for the beauty, but when we say that we don't understand it is probably from cultural differences. However, the differences produce a possibility of communicating. In NIADA artists' views, telling story to the viewers can be in a simpler way so as not to distract from the main attraction, the Doll. This can be done with gestures of the figure, costuming, and the base should be simpler. Yet putting the dolls into unified environments is the very what I wanted to explore. Of course, I respect NIADA artists' opinion, but I think I should stick with my own way. When I realized this point, I found out all of my works whatever they have dolls or not, pursuing the Chinese Aesthetic Mood is not only a desire from our hearts, but it's also our belonging in the culture.