Technology is Just Another Paintbrush: In Conversation with Pan Gongkai and Clifford Ross
By Artsy Editors
May 22, 2013 11:15 am

Artsy shares highlights from the recent exhibition at the Today Art Museum in Beijing, “Pan Gongkai: Dispersion and Generation,” which presented 20 years of Pan Gongkai’s works, covering ink painting, installation, and architectural design. Artsy's Chief Curator, Christine Kuan, speaks with artists Pan Gongkai, President of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), and Clifford Ross—who worked together on an installation for this exhibit. Read on as they speak about their views of each other’s work, collaboration between East and West, and their advice to young artists. See interview in Chinese here.

Christine Kuan: What was your initial reaction to each other’s work and how did you decide to embark on this collaboration?

Pan Gongkai: We've liked each other's work from the very beginning. Clifford showed me his photographs—for example his "Hurricane and Mountain" series—which showed his passion for nature, as well as the quietness inside him that we share in common. I appreciate his alternative perspective on ink painting as a Western artist, but he also has an instant and profound comprehension of the essential aesthetics and intellectual thinking behind it. I believe that Chinese ink painting should welcome multiple perspectives and multiple visions.

Clifford Ross: Our initial meeting was at dinner in Beijing where we had a chance to look at each other’s work in books and on a laptop computer screen. Our conversation ranged from our preliminary reactions to each other’s work to Northern Sung Landscape painting and the writings of Arthur Danto. At the end of dinner we decided to spend some of the following day in his studio looking at his work and I arranged to show him some of my video work—that visit was the clincher. I had found an aesthetic and intellectual brother.

CK: Landscape painting is considered the highest art form in Chinese painting and both of your work has been deeply concerned with landscape and the environment. What is it about nature that captivates you when so much of the contemporary art world has, it seems, neglected this subject?

PG: Quietness and plainness. This is the most aesthetically significant part of nature, at least for me. Most contemporary art focuses on one’s anxiety, depression, etc., while the Classical nature-human integration is widely believed to be out of date, in an ignorant, blind, and fashion-oriented perception.

CR: The natural landscape is so much bigger than us, it gives context to all our petty thoughts—meaning it allows the mind and soul to dump the small stuff and think and feel the big picture. Even my abstract work is enabled by my relation to landscape. I think the contemporary art world’s lack of interest in landscape and its obsession with pop culture—and its tendency to be narcissistic or grandiose—well, I think the art world would be well served by putting itself in front of art that concerns itself with something bigger than just the self and the popular culture we inhabit. I don’t mean this to be a condemnation of Warhol, or present day “political” art, and so on, but a call for attention to an alternative, worthy subject. There should be room in the 21st century for the 19th century sublime.

CK: While your work has roots in tradition, new media is very much a part of your work. How has digital technology transformed your art-making practice and the way you reach people?

PG: Firstly, we have to clarify that ink painting is not necessarily traditional, while new media is not automatically contemporary—media is not the one and only standard to distinguish tradition and contemporary. Digital technology transforms my creative practices just as any alternative media does, e.g. ink painting, architecture design, installation, no more and no less. New media does have the ability to reach more people, especially those who have no idea about traditional art. Those who appreciate and comprehend traditions are not necessarily transformed by digital technology.

CR: I consider van Eyck’s invention of oil paint a “technology” breakthrough. An equally amazing technological breakthrough was Brunelleschi’s discovery of perspective.  Or Guttenberg’s printing press. To isolate “digital technology” from the history of innovation does a disservice to the past and almost limits the use of present day innovation. I use digital technology as another tool to enhance feeling and enrich the content of my work—as well as a means of distributing it to a wider audience.  I tell people all the time that technology is just another paintbrush. Use it if you have the inclination to use it but use it at the service of something deeper than making a lot of noise. Use it with a sense of adventure and craft, not as a new, handy loudspeaker.

CK: The Chinese contemporary art market has been booming and so has the construction of new museums across China. What does this mean for future collaborations between China and the West?

CR:  It seems to me that as China and the other BRIC countries, like Brazil, will come into their own economically. There is a natural drive to express and celebrate the culture that is at the core of each country. Art has always been a persistent and valued residue of cultural greatness, throughout time and around the world. Building museums at such a staggering pace, as China is doing, and the boom in the art market, reflects the rapid growth of the culture as a whole and the desire to have it acknowledged both within the country and around the world. Museums will exhibit Chinese art and art from other countries, and Chinese art is finding its way to New York’s Chelsea art galleries. I see the museums and the explosion of the art market not as nationalistic enterprises as much as natural mechanisms of the society to join the global cultural dialogue. A walled society is not a strong society, and the gradually opening and flourishing art scene in China is a meaningful way for China to take its rightful, powerful place on the world stage.

PG: The museum construction boom across China has motivated a passion to learn from major Western cities, which  have rich and complete cultural facilities. But we have to confront the challenge that, in reality, these constructions are implemented in a quick sometimes careless way. There is much focus on buildings while neglecting the preparation and development of the essential cultural content inside the spaces. Same with the art market. The whole system of gallery-dealer and auctions were introduced from the West, but with more problems due to the misreading of the processes. Anyway, it is always difficult to be perfect when developing rapidly in a short time frame. I prefer to see this as an unavoidable aspect of progress.

CK: What is your one piece of advice to young artists?

CR:  Never quit.

PG: I don’t think I could find a better saying than Clifford just did. Concern yourself with something bigger than yourself, never indulge in the narcissistic or grandiose.


Pan Gongkai is the President of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), which is considered China’s most prestigious art academy. He was also the former President of the China Academy of Art. Pan is the son of Pan Tianshou, renowned painter and educators, and is himself a master of traditional Chinese ink painting. He represented China at the Venice Biennale 2011 and exhibits widely.

Clifford Ross an American artist working in a wide range of media, including photography, painting, installation, and video. In 2002, Ross invented the R1 camera, and then went on to make some of the highest resolution large-scale landscape photographs in the world. His most recent work is The Austin Wall, a 9x9 meter stained glass wall commissioned for the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Austin, Texas.

Images of the exhibition courtesy of Clifford Ross Studio; portrait of Clifford and Pan courtesy of International Club Magazine.

Video credit: Clifford Ross, video and installation concept.