Put your work first. — So much of art today has become a pop experience, with the winners the ones that scream the loudest and not necessarily the ones that speak most clearly. Publishers want a story first, but as an artist, your artwork should always go first. Last year, I had a chance to be the cover artist of Resident Magazine. They published six photos of me in the magazine, but only one of them was my artwork. The photos are great, but I’d rather show more of my artwork and less of me! So, remember put your artwork in the center, always!
As a part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist” I had the pleasure of interviewing Linjie Deng.
Linjie Deng is a multimedia artist in New York City. The 29-year-old artist received his MFA degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York. Multimedia art, such as ink art, participatory art and performance art have always been a passion and hobby in Deng’s life. He started studying Chinese ink art at six years old. Now, his artwork has also migrated to a space situated among digital media, video and many other types of media. He also tends to execute experiments with media and new media art from a Conceptualist position. Linjie’s works have been shown in China, the Museum of Chinese in America, The Hamptons Virtual Art Fair, and more.
Thank you so much for joining us. What is the “backstory” behind what brought you to this point in your career?
Generally, when people ask me why I studied art, I lie to them and say because I loved art. In fact, the real cause was that I was too poor.
Although I was born 1992 during the one child policy time, I have two sisters. This is very rare in China. So, our five family members had to spend what little we had among five mouths to feed. Hobbies? The thought of a piano? Haha! No money for music lessons….and even if we could get a piano for free, then it would take the space of a someone’s bed! And no sports either. Because you sweat when playing basketball games or other sports, then you need to wash your clothes frequently and waste water. Your body grows too fast and needs to constantly buy new clothes for sports, which will cost more money. So, what could I do? Stay home and learn calligraphy and painting. A pen and a piece of paper, the cheapest hobby. Perfect for me, or so my mother thought.
The Chinese have a traditional belief in raising a son to help in their old age. As the only son in my family, my father was dead set for me to study physics, chemistry or mathematics. So, I can get an IT job in a factory in the future to make a lot of money. So, after all that, he banned me from studying art. Every time I want to paint or draw, I must go out secretly. I keep a math book always in my bag. Just in case my father suddenly checked my backpack.
But we all know the principle of desire. When you forbid your child do something, it becomes even more tantalizing! My father’s opposition did not make me lose my love for art, but made me sure that I wanted to spend my whole life exploring art.
Then I went to Beijing to study art for my BFA degree. Then I got my Master of Fine Art degree at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
For me, art is a respectable profession. As good or better than the professions my father was pushing.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
More and more American young people are keen to engrave Chinese characters on their bodies in the form of tattoos, but sometimes they do not understand the true meaning behind those Chinese characters. So, I wonder why I can’t combine my calligraphy works with their dreams and draw the characters on their hands?
On April 13, 2018, I launched my Dream Tattoo public art project in New York. Wearing traditional Chinese clothes, I went to Bryant Park and displayed some calligraphy drawings. I talked about Chinese Calligraphy art with spectators and tourists. Tell me your dream, and I will draw my interpretation of the dream on the back of your hand using Chinese ink and brush to create Chinese calligraphy.
Whenever people pass by, they will stop curiously to watch me write calligraphy, and then very politely ask me: “how much? Cash only?” I smiled and told them that this is my public art project. As long as you tell me your dream, I can make a Chinese-style ink tattoo for you for free.
I was shocked. People actually sat opposite me and talked to me. Each of them was very sincere, and they were willing to tell me their truest dreams and secrets.
Some people’s dreams are freedom, some people’s dreams are best-selling writers, and some people’s dreams are women and a 300-meter-per-hour motorcycle…I wrote these dreams on their hands, and then raised their hands in front of their face to take pictures. One side is an American face, and one side is a Chinese tattoo.
Before I set off, I had no idea that people would offer to buy my calligraphy works, and definitely didn’t expect that people would give me unconditional trust and enthusiasm. This makes me feel that through my own calligraphy art, dreams and trust can be rebuilt.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Right now, I am working on a project name called: My Life with Linjie. Today, this is the era of rapid development of the information age. And it’s a society where we download knowledge far more than we store knowledge. It makes me hard to breathe. So, I decided to press the pause button. I wanted to find out what kind of family and country I came from, what my current situation is, and what kind of world I will live in in the future. I want to observe myself as a bystander and express the relationship between myself and developing society through painting.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
The most interesting people I have ever interacted with…. will always be my audience, and especially during my Chameleon 2020 Exhibition at the Hamptons Virtual Art Fair. Not only has COVID caused death and terrible personal loss, but it has prevented all of us from communicating face-to-face, shaking hands, and hugging. Since in-person art shows couldn’t function, I displayed at the Hamptons Virtual Show. A short time after displaying my 25 works at the fair, my Instagram began receiving feedback and likes from viewers all over the world, and people were visiting my exhibition 24/7.
I have been communicating with so many artists and collectors, like movie director, Michael V Fisher; MOMA Senior Deputy Director, Todd Bishop; World Famous Artist, Liu Bolin; Art collector, Libbie Mugrabi; curator, James Elaine and many others. But just as important, so many people from different backgrounds and cultures, China ShangriLa Hotel Manager, Sinan Yilmaz; Director of Out Leadership, Fabrice C Houdart; Broadway producer, Tom Kirdahy.
Because we have had to change the way we communicate, so many people have seen my works of art through virtual art exhibitions. They have had the opportunity to ask me about the meaning and story behind my work; and they shared their artistic feelings with me. Some wonderful audiences from Spain and Slovakia interacting with me. We speak different languages. But we still keep in touch. During this epidemic, we have warmed each other.
I have communicated with so many people from all over the world because of the virtual art exhibitions. To me, every time someone clicks a like button on their screen, it is not internet traffic, not data, but a force and love behind the screen that shows a love of art. Although we have never met, I can blend with and accompany my audiences in the journey through my art.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?
For me, painting is about myself. I must know why each stroke is drawn and why each visual element is used. So, of course, my inspiration comes from my life experiences and my hopes for the future.
On August 8, 2019, I exhibited my painting “Born This Way” in a New York art exhibition called “Where We’re From”. I was born 1992 in China. In my family, I have two older sisters. A family with three children from that time is very rare.
In my country of over 1.35 billion people, there is a population imbalance. A gender imbalance between men and women. There are 20% more men than women.
Because since 1980, the government of China has had a one-child policy. But China, for cultural and for practical reasons, has always favored sons. So, with the possibility that a baby’s sex can be determined in the womb, sex-selective abortions have become very common.
This practice has had many intended and unintended consequences. One is the horror of having to choose which child lives, and which child dies. And there is another consequence:
Because of the imbalance, adult men have great difficulty finding wives. In fact, by 2020, China had an estimated thirty million bachelors, a number that exceeds the entire population of Canada.
So, based on my life experience and my generation problem, I made this painting. “Born This Way.”
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I created multiple public service pieces to encourage people to stay home, wear masks avoid touching, including a piece for the U.N. Global Callout to Creatives on COVID-19.
There is also my painting titled NO Touching: It took the coronavirus outbreak to make us aware of just how often we reach for our faces after we touch a surface. And, throughout our day, we touch a lot of surfaces — doorknobs, elevator buttons, subway poles. From any surface, microbes can piggyback on our fingertips It’s a very difficult habit to break because we all do it, and oftentimes we’re not even aware of it. So, as a visual artist, I created a piece where hands could come close, but not touch….with otherwise dire consequences:
With the human hands as the focal point, the viewer sees those hands in a positive dynamic that approach, but do not contact, with each other. The symbol of death, as represented by the skull in the negative space, blocks the hands from completing their touch. The background is filled with the notion of “Survival”. The closest layer of painting to viewers is the title: NO TOUCHING.
The color Yellow is used to attract attention and express the warning of the virus’ danger to our everyday lives. The color Black is a universal symbol that symbolizes complexity and also represents death, mourning, magic, ferocity, disease. The two colors Black and Yellow together form a sharp visual contrast, with an explicit representation of the skull in the middle. For me, “survival” is a neutral word. So, for “survival” I use a middle-range color, Dark Yellow.
In the middle is a round black shape. It can probably be defined as they eye of the skull, it can also be seen as the shape of COVID-19. COVID-19 has brought a stark reminder to society that the separation between life and death may be infinitesimally small. But we are also reminded how wonderful life and love can be and that we should respect and cherish it.
When you look at the NO TOUCHING painting, take a few steps back. You will have more understanding as to the various meanings of each level of the painting. Behind the hands is survival; and behind the survival is the bright glistening future as shiny as the color yellow. Crucial to our bright future now is: no touching. Thus, the various aspects of my composition.
NO TOUCHING is not only the chance for us to make that change, but also a weapon to fight the virus.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
First: Put your work first.
So much of art today has become a pop experience, with the winners the ones that scream the loudest and not necessarily the ones that speak most clearly. Publishers want a story first, but as an artist, your artwork should always go first. Last year, I had a chance to be the cover artist of Resident Magazine. They published six photos of me in the magazine, but only one of them was my artwork. The photos are great, but I’d rather show more of my artwork and less of me! So, remember put your artwork in the center, always!
Secondly: Cleaning your studio before all else
When I am angry, lost or I feel I can’t focus, it just makes things worse when my workspace is a mess. It took me a long time to make studio cleaning and organizing a priority. I just spent eight days to paint my studio walls from purple into super white and cleaning my outdoor space. I didn’t want anyone to help, I had to do it myself. But picking up, sweeping, moving things around, making new feeling of old space, I had a new perspective to see my artworks within the new background color. And I found a new flying friend in my backyard — — a Robin. Maybe my next painting is about this bird.
Thirdly: Go big or go home!
I didn’t have the funds to pay the tuition for my dream graduate school — the School of Visual Arts In New York when I got the school’s offer back in 2015. So, I decided to sell myself to the Public in China. Help me get my dream — If you contribute 100 dollars, you will get my Chinese Calligraphy artworks. If you contribute 1000 dollars, you will receive my Chinese stamp artwork. After I posted it on the Chinese version of Twitter the reaction was mixed, at first a lot of negative comments: you are shameless, a con artist, liar, bitch. But amazingly, so many people wanted to help. In just seven days I received 80k dollars from 239 people. So many people that I had to stop the campaign after those seven days. No one in China had ever done that kind of campaign! Each of us does things in our life and work that require real courage and sacrifice. So, go big or go home. You never know what will happen when you go big.
Fourth: Don’t define yourself by a single medium.
I started learning Chinese Calligraphy when I was six years old. But that doesn’t mean I can only make art with Chinese ink. My artwork uses multiple media — acrylic, watercolor, installation, public performance art, video, writing, photography. Freud said: “I’m only trying to do what I can’t do.” I wish I could have heard that at a very young age. So, for an artist, don’t limit your potential by presenting yourself as just one kind of maker. You are an artist.
Fifth: Never take advice from people who over 30 years old.
Don’t worry, lol, I am 29 years old. We are cool!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d like to use my artwork to inspire a movement about gender equality in Asia. Especially in China and India. Now you know that there are 20% more men than women in China. For the rich men, this is less of a problem. Because in China, having a home, car and good job can attract a mate. But poor men are priced out. Which leads to them being unable to find a wife and have children, who could help them as they get older.
So, what is the possible social impact? It’s more than just a bunch of lonely men who will have no one to care for them when they are old. Human trafficking, forced prostitution, and an increase in the crime rate can all be traced to an excess of unmarried men in Asia.
This problem is growing by the second. Because in China, there is a baby born every two seconds. And the majority are boys.
But really, men shouldn’t have to live like this. And women shouldn’t be subjected to this. So, I’d like to ask people:
Will 30 million men (or more) in China always be single?
Can China, culturally and practically, embrace the idea that “Having boys or girls is equally good”? Can, three thousand years of tradition, embedded cultural preferences, and the behavior of 1.35 billion people change?
It would take another great cultural revolution. But this time, a more humane one.
We have been blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.
When I saw this question, the first person in my mind was Cardi B. But in the end, I decided to leave this magical opportunity to my mother.
Yes, I like and admire Cardi B. She is the epitome of a tough New Yorker, but a very talented and amazing performer. As an artist who also lives and works in New York, I want to communicate with artists from different cultural backgrounds. I love Cardi B’s freedom, boldness and unrestrained demeanor. In her latest song WAP, Cardi B says, “I don’t cook, I don’t clean.” But if Cardi B wants to meet me for the private breakfast or lunch, I can cook and clean for her! So, I guess it’s a really good match.
Though, as I grow up and continue my artwork, it has been difficult for me to have the opportunity to return to China to reunite with my mother and have breakfast or lunch with her like ordinary Chinese families would. In the past six years, I have only met my mother twice, and each time we met, it was very rushed.
So, Cardi B, we are both in New York, and we can always meet each other, but my mother gets older day by day. I don’t know when the time can for me to eat dumplings together with mom. So, sorry Cardi B, I must pass for now, and I choose my mom.
What is the best way readers can follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!