The Laten Photon
Jonathan LeVine Gallery, New York
4 September – 4 October 2014
by KELLY ROBBINS
I met DALeast on St Marks in the East Village in front of his mural, a giant soaring bird with wings spanning the entire wall of a brick tenement building. He took us across the street to Cafe Mogador, a restaurant he had frequented while painting the mural. We sat at a table near a window, and as we spoke people passing by constantly stopped in front of the mural, seemingly in awe.
Kelly Robbins: How did you come to make this mural?
DALeast: I like to paint murals when I’m travelling. An organisation called East Village Mural Project found this wall for me, so I had the opportunity to paint one on St Marks.
KR: Wherever in the world you’re painting, whether it’s a mural in LA or in New York, whatever you create really represents the environment in which you’re working. You manage to represent a sense of place. How do you find your locations and how do you make your work?
DAL: I travel to different cities to work on projects with friends, but mostly I go to the cities because I’m commissioned to create something there. The wall is the primary thing. The energy of the atmosphere inspires me. For example, I think this mural is for New York City and the environment of St. Marks. [He points to the giant mural behind us.]
KR: How long does it take you to paint a mural?
DAL: It depends on the size of the wall. This one took me four or five days. I need to be fast. Anything can happen when you work in the street, so you’re trained to be fast
KR: But in the studio?
DAL: Much slower, the background takes me a few weeks.
KR: Can you tell me about the tea-stained surfaces in your paintings?
DAL: Nature inspires my work a lot. I’m using a flower tea, so for me beginning my painting with tea stains is starting from nature. The tea stains bring the element and colour of nature into my painting. I don’t have control over the patterns the stains will make, as they are also influenced by the level of the floor and gravity, which draw the tea to certain areas of the canvas. So we all work together.
KR: Is there a difference between the work you make for public spaces and the paintings you create in your studio?
DAL: There’s a major difference environmentally and conceptually. My studio work is like a personal conversation between me and my work, but on the street I have a conversation with the public. People pass by and have their own unique experiences with the work. I can see it in their faces. Another difference is that I can’t really see the whole sketch of the mural. It’s too large. But sometimes I’ll receive a photo from someone who took a photo of the mural as I’m working. They see the sketch before I do. In the studio, I’m just in front of the canvas. The size is smaller, so I know what I’m doing and I feel in control. It’s really hard to feel that control on the street. Social media lets people share my murals even before I see them. It’s a bit like you have to see the whole world before you put your clothes on. But who cares.
KR: Do working in public spaces and in the studio feed each other? Are they in dialogue with each other? Are they having a conversation?
DAL: I think the link is about my role or my perception. They’re like different bodies with a shared consciousness. Maybe this body speaks Spanish … So when he speaks English, he’s got a Spanish accent. And the other body speaks Chinese. When he speaks English, it’s with a Chinese accent. (He laughs.)
KR: So the accents are different?
DAL: Yeah, it’s kind of like that, but it doesn’t really matter. The difference is – there’s a beauty on the street – after I finish the work, I may not see it again. I spend the whole week creating the piece, and the next day someone may come and destroy it. The studio work will show in a safer space where people can collect it and keep it, so it will live longer. Then again, nothing can live for ever. As the wiser one said: all compound things are impermanent. So now I have to say goodbye when I finish a work in a public space. This was really hard for me in the beginning, letting go of them. I felt so attached to them. But now I do it with ease.
KR: I’m curious about the title of your show, the Laten Photon.
DAL: The title of my show is based on quantum physics. The photon is the tiny particle that causes the eye to see light. Then it causes us to see the object. Laten is an incorrect word from latent.
KR: What was it like growing up as an artist in Wuhan?
DAL: Wuhan is like a bottle of old wine that has fallen to the ground. I heard many artists grow up in this city, and most of them leave.
KR: How did you become an artist?
DAL: I liked to draw since I was three years old, so I started with paint and I liked to play with drawing.
KR: Who gave you the paints?
DAL: My mom.
KR: Is she an artist too?
DAL: No. I don’t have any artists in my family. I don’t remember this, but my mom told me that one day while I was drawing I told her I wanted to be an artist in this life and that I wanted to travel around the world, so it’s kind of become my thing. I always had really strong feelings about wanting to become an artist, so I developed the habit very young. I studied sculpture at Hubei Institute of Fine Arts in Wuhan.
KR: What was the education like?
DAL: I wasn’t a good student. I wasn’t finishing my work on time and sometimes I didn’t go to the classes, but the teacher would always find me on the street. I didn’t like how they were teaching because they were just teaching us how to make things, not how to create things.
KR: Was art history a part of your education there?
DAL: They taught us up to Van Gogh, but nothing after that really fitted into the system, but there are still great artists in China making really good work. I wasn’t really enjoying my education at the institute, so I dropped out in the fourth year. The course is supposed to be five years. I dropped out and started doing my own thing. Actually, it was during my first year of art school that I also started painting in the street with my crew – a few friends who came together.
KR: Was it illegal?
DAL: Not really illegal, because there is no law about it in China. It’s a grey area there. If you do something sensitive, you will probably get into trouble, but if you do something OK, people will just think: “Oh, those people love to paint.” But people don’t really understand it because China is so fast. People don’t understand why you spend such money. You don’t get money back. You spend money on the wall? Maybe someone will cover it the next day. They think you’re crazy. But since the change in China, people are understanding it and getting into it. They appreciate it.
KR: Can you tell me more about the “change” you speak of in China?
DAL: China’s new generation is very different from the older generation. The older generation is a mix of China’s traditional past and global thinking, so things are very different these days. Now there’s a lack of traditional culture in the education system and we get a lot of American culture. Things have changed a lot.
KR: So you were always aware of the art world outside China?
DAL: When I was studying, I was seeking information about art internationally, but my progression began locally. After I left the institute, my friends and I formed a collective and started experimenting with making art in urban spaces. We would create installations in the city. We would create art on top of billboards. They would look like real advertisements on the billboards, but it was our content. We would make sculptures on the street. We created some videos. This lasted about a year.
KR: Is this about the time you moved to Beijing?
DAL: Yes. I heard there was a lot of stuff happening in Beijing. I lived in Beijing for about three years. During that time, I found my way because I was experimenting with so many different media and painting a lot. I was trying to observe a lot, to figure out was going on, and I wanted to keep painting murals.
KR: How did you first leave China?
DAL: I met my wife in China. She is an artist, too. We were working on the same mural project. She’s from Cape Town and I went there to visit her. Then I decided to stay. It was so different from my world. Beautiful nature. But nothing really worked for me there.
KR: As an artist?
DAL: No, as a person, as a human. The food and everything was not the same. Now it’s OK. Now it’s better. So we’ve been travelling and painting murals for three years. We don’t really work together, but sometimes the same projects invite us to come and create something, so we travel at the same time. So I decided to keep painting murals in Cape Town. I saw that painting murals was how things should happen, how my future should unfold. I did paint murals in Beijing as well and I became really serious about it there, so I stopped all the other media. I did make some films and I want to continue to make something in the future, but at this stage of my career I just want to paint.
KR: Do you always paint animals?
DAL: We hardly see animals in real life any more. They’re always on JPEGs or TV, or a screen. They’ve become screen beings. So I like to commemorate them in urban spaces with my interpretation. The animals are living with speed but dissolving or crashing. It is kind of like us humans. You see the strands [he points to the mural across the street], how they’re peeling off?
DAL: Everything is changing all the time. All compound things are impermanent.
KR: Indeed. That sounds very Buddhist.
DAL: I am trying to be a Buddhist as I am seeing impermanence in everyday life.
KR: I see the Buddhist quality in your work.
DAL: I’m inspired by Buddhist philosophy. We’re always thinking we’re the same as yesterday, but we’re not even the same as we were in the last second.
KR: How do you approach colour in the studio?
DAL: I used to use layers of black, white, and grey in my work because I like the simplicity of colour as well as the tea-stained colour … In this show, I’ve started to play with colours other than tea-stained backgrounds: reds, greys or blues. You can see that some of the paintings look like metal and others have a rusted colour, which alludes to the passing of time. The fresh metal is rusting.
KR: So you’re referencing time in your work?
DAL: We have the perception of time, don’t we?
KR: Are you still actively involved with art in China, or are you primarily working internationally?
DAL: Internationally. I am just living in a Chinese body.
KR: For how long were you making this body of work?
DAL: Since the beginning of this year.
KR: And you were travelling a lot?
DAL: I’ve been preparing for my show, so I haven’t travelled much since February. Now that my show is up, I’m going to be travelling a lot. Tomorrow, I go to Portland for three days and to New Zealand from there, and then back to Cape Town for five days. After that I’m going to Poland and then on to London.
KR: You’re very busy. What do you do when you’re not making art?
DAL: Trying to concentrate in a different way. I’m so distracted.
KR: Are you painting murals in each of these places?
DAL: Yes. Well, I’m going to London for my wife’s show. Then I’m going to Berlin and from there back to Wuhan.
KR: Do you have a favourite city?
DAL: Different places have different personalities. I enjoy New York. This is a very special place with many different cultures all in one city. You know I’ve travelled to many places, and I see many of them are the same: the same shops, the same brands, the same layouts of the city, the same cars, the same food. That’s why I love Nepal and India where it is very different. Cows hang out in the shops. There are more possibilities of life and perception there. For me, it’s important to change my habitual patterns. India is a place to shift your habits. I hear about it. When we go somewhere, we kind of shift what we do. We always have change in our life, which can lend us a potentially new way of thinking about life.
KR: Do you still scale a building in the middle of the night and paint outside your commissions?
DAL: No, not any more. I had that passion when I was young, but now I feel it is more important to finish my work, because I like to paint large-scale things, so I’m always more concerned with being able to finish what I’ve started. Most of the time, I can only stay in a city for a few days, so I need to make sure I can finish the work before I leave. It’s also about respect for the community and the people who live there.
KR: Do you look at street art?
DAL: I feel all the arts are equal. The differences in medium are not as important as the core of the artwork, so I don’t even know how to define so called street art. The name sounds limited to me.
KR: Who inspired you as an artist when you were developing?
DAL: I am still developing, but I have many different artists from my past who taught me through their work. When I was studying sculpture, I idolised Michelangelo and Rodin. My favourite was Antoni Gaudí [...] But actually, I love old Chinese art. I feel like contemporary art speaks too much. Chinese traditional art doesn’t tell people right or wrong or give certain answers, but instead asks questions. There’s no boundary. It conveys something uniquely internal. That’s a major influence for me. It’s something I’m constantly thinking about, creating something more than what the eye can see. I like the way traditional Chinese painting, from the Tang dynasty and Song dynasty to Qing dynasty, speaks by not speaking much. The sculpture from the Song dynasty, by only adding a small thing or shape to a natural rock, the artist turns it into a sculpture piece. It is pretty much a collaboration with and respect for nature. For me, it’s a vast and powerful way to express the feeling and spirit through variation and sense, so the concept and the idea unaffectedly exists with the variation. I prefer there to be space for people to develop their own imagination. Everything that we touch or think, there is a certain energy there. If we work on ourselves, then the whole world will change. If we change our perceptions, the world around us will change. I’m thinking about changing myself, changing my own perceptions and then “it” will naturally come out through my creation.