I am very fortunate to have been in Professor Tian's studio at a young age. At the time, I was rather young and hadn't really started making art, but I was able to be with him and be influenced by him. The most important things he taught me were that an artist should be independent, criticize society, hold on to his own views, and spurn power with humor. I think that he is a true artist, and I was very fortunate to have Professor Tian as an artist friend, or both a mentor and friend, when I was young. I saw him as my teacher, and in terms of age, he always emphasized that we were friends, which I must say made me feel very lucky.
What left the deepest impression about Professor Tian's work is that he brought the smell of the earth and the mountains and the ethnic minority style of sculpture from Guizhou. He also did works featuring historical figures, such as Tan Sitong, which are great. However, I think that he was primarily influenced by primitive culture in Guizhou. His work was grounded, rough, and strong, evolving from a power inside him. It was impactful in the cities if you looked at art for a long time, especially official art in the 1980s and 1990s. Comparatively speaking, Tian's art was eye-catching and strong. It reflected a culture different from Beijing, and it was precisely because of this that Professor Tian's work stood out in the Beijing art world.
I think that Professor Tian's way of speaking is very funny and characteristic. He always uses vivid imagery as a metaphor or description for something, and the language itself is very surreal. For example, when he described a person putting on a front to curry favor and climb the ladder, he would say that the person had a head so shiny that a fly landing on it would simply slide off. His expressions were very imaginative, and they fit very well with the humor in his work.
Since ancient times, sculptors have been akin to artisans, and they are immensely motivated to work with their hands, whether in stone, wood, or clay. They work every day, from morning to night. The Chinese sculptors I knew were all teachers at the academy, and Professor Tian Shixin was the best of those sculptors running around and always working. I think that, when we were together at the institute, we joked and had fun, but Professor Tian always had a carving in his hand. He would be talking to us as he carved, and we were so young that we didn't know what simply talking was. I noticed very early on that Professor Tian's hands were always moving. Sometimes we wanted to learn from Professor Tian's diligence but couldn't. He really is a true artist, an artist who works with his own two hands. Of course, later conceptual art introduced new ideas into sculpture. This was a different mode that appeared in the 1990s, but I very much admire Professor Tian using his hands to carve his sculptures regardless of developments in art. I think that he poured his emotion directly into every cut, every plane, every fold, and every detail. This is valuable, and he has left a lot of sculptures that require a careful look. Professor Tian is a true artisan and artist.
When I had just graduated, the atmosphere was confusing and depressing. I felt that I could talk with very few people. Because I stayed at the academy's research institute, I didn't go out into society and make friends. Around this time, Tian Shixin was transferred to our work unit. When I saw how much fun he was, this was a very pleasant surprise for me. Professor Tian has significant personal charm, and I immediately felt that I had met a close friend. I remember that Professor Tian lived in a small house. His family hadn't arrived yet, so we would go to his house after work to have a drink. Professor Tian liked to drink medicinal liquor infused with all kinds of things. Of course, we primarily chatted. There were several of us young people, including Zhang Defeng and Tan Ning, who really liked hanging out with Professor Tian, and we became a little group within the institute. It was primarily because we were birds of a feather who liked chatting. Professor Tian liked making fun of everything, he liked to joke about everything, and he liked to comment on everything, from art to society, politics, and life. I think that this had an impact on the character of a group of young people wanting to learn about art. He also taught me the workhorse spirit needed to become a sculptor. In short, I was very much influenced by him. I made a few small pieces that were somewhat influenced by him, which I have kept. Now they are very precious memories.
The way in which Professor Tian shaped human flesh is why I use the word "flesh" and not "muscle." The most important trait of Professor Tian's sculpture is that he doesn't use the academic model, in which you first learn to dissect the human body before you can model it. He didn't do it this way; he saw people directly as fleshy animals, then depicted people through flesh; he expressed the material side of a person. He mocked and made fun of the physical body, as this is a really funny part about our real lives. I think that his way of expressing himself actually made us independently examine the human spirit, or think about what is truly noble in the human spirit. None of this could be found in these bodies, so his depictions of the body were very distinctive. The body was a subject of mockery, and a target of sarcasm or even ridicule, but he was also fascinated by the body. He presented the physical body as particularly beautiful, interesting, and tasteful. As for why Professor Tian is so enamored of the folds or forms of flesh… I think that only he knows that, but from our superficial observations as viewers, I think that the fleshy humor of Professor Tian's sculptures is one of his trademarks.
As an artist, one must always remain sensitive, alert, angry, and funny; I think that Professor Tian is all of these things.
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