At sunset the sound of drums leads to Maleonn’s studio. Before the area was redeveloped, Shift had a Chinese branch at No. 696 in the Wei Hai Lu art area, where we would run into Maleonn, who also had a studio in that area. His current studio is located in a suburb of Shanghai which is known as a resort town. Once I heard that his new project will be starting soon, I decided to interview him and visit his new studio.
I heard that your Chinese name “Ma Liang” is related to a story, is that correct?
There is a Chinese fairytale “Ma Liang’s Magical brush” which is a story where anything you draw with the brush becomes real. The boy who likes drawing is called Ma Liang. He is very good at drawing and his work looks like it is alive. I think all Chinese people know this story as well as all the children.
After graduating from university, I heard that you became a director of an advertising company and did art direction. What kind of job was it?
At that company I produced design work. I drew everything as a background. When I shot some objects I built all parts of the set, from the tiny props to the main part of the set. For example, if it is a cup then I can buy them at the shop, however like this thing (he grabbed the mask on the table) we need to make one by ourselves. If you were told by the director, “we need a mask like this or that,” then I was making exactly what was described. I could learn how to design those little props or the main part of a set during that time.
The art director job is basically a management position, you have to organize everything that you can see in an advertisement. After all the preparation, the cameraman will do the shoot. If you say this (art) job is one piece of paper, the cameraman’s job can be described as a pen. That is how the advertisement will be completed. I did this job for 5 years. At that time, in china, TV commercials had momentum so my job was very successful. I became a team leader of a French team with more than thirty assistants.
During those 5 years of working experience, I learned a lot of things including how I should make a small props and a big, main set. After that I did the job of director for a few years and worked there for 9 years in total.The job I do now originated from what I had learnt there.
At the time you already had status and skills; however why did you decide to become an artist? Weren’t you worried about that?
When I was an art-director, I opened a production house with two producers. The business was going very well, however I happened to suddenly suffer from insomnia. I didn’t feel comfortable when I slept and I was asking myself if I like my job or not. I realised that I needed to change the situation, so I gave them all the company’s funds and I left the company. They are really good friends so I was worried the business would be affected. In the beginning, it seemed hard but they are still doing that job.
How did you become an artist?
In the beginning when I started my artist career, I didn’t know what to do because becoming an artist is not something that someone can teach you what to do or how you can become an artist. It had been 9 years since I had left the art-director job. I didn’t have any contact with my teachers and my life was very far from art. I didn’t even know any curators, galleries or museums. I just didn’t know how to start as an artist. The first thing that I tried was a web gallery where I put my works of art on the internet. Since young artists do not have enough chances to show their works of art, everyone was treated equally on the internet. I created my Home Page that looks like a professional artist’s serious one. I put all of the details of my work and myself such as my portrait picture, name, my job background and my art every month. I also wrote down my thoughts every day. I didn’t have any interviews (like now) but I just wanted to present my thoughts somewhere. I often wrote about “What is Art?”, and “What is photography?” I even translated it into English so that a lot of different people in the world would see them. If I think about now what I was doing back then, it was a psychological reaction to becoming an artist myself.
How did your career as an artist go after that?
A few months passed and I still couldn’t draw. To me, the situation was quite depressing so I didn’t want to go out, especially to the studio. When I was working at my previous job I was surrounded by a lot of people every day, however if I try to draw something on a canvas on my own, then I didn’t know what to do. Therefore, I shifted to becoming a photographer. The job of photographer was similar to what I was doing before and I was quite famous in that area so quite a few of my friends trusted my ability as a photographer. They trusted me as a serious person and believed in my skills and that photos I take will turn out to be beautiful ones. Some professional actors/actresses, fashion designers, and makeup artists helped my work for free. I started like this and kept doing this for around two years. I was shooting photos everyday and developed photos at home and listed them on my Home Page. Sometimes I received a comment such as “nice photo!”and I replied “Thank you!”as I was updating the homepage everyday with the new photos. When I started it, some people were laughing at my work and they were saying “strange” or “These are not photos. These are all steel,” but I was very enthusiastic about what I was doing.
However, even with my homepage becoming popular, there were no invitations from any galleries at all and I didn’t have any money. I was even using my pen name in English, “Maleonn” on the internet so that no one knew that who “Maleonn” was.
After that, I became completely broke, but I didn’t have any good results so I felt frustrated and upset. I had an option in that I could go back to my previous advertisement career, but I decided to keep going as an artist. After that, just as suddenly, all started to go very well.
Why did everything go very well all of a sudden?
I think God had been preparing for it. When you keep doing something to a certain point, all of a sudden you can do it very well. I had several interviews from my country and also other countries and a lot of galleries contacted me. My financial situation became better as well. After I did an exhibition in 2006, it had gradually changed. I thought that I can finally have a normal life.
How did you survive through those tough two years?
I found different ways to enjoy myself each time. When I didn’t have any money, I had time which I don’t have now. I used to be free for 365 days, I was alone for a whole year so I watched a lot of movies and read a lot of books since I was alone all the time, but now I have so much to do such as interviews, attend events, and other things. We all have good times and bad times. When I had time I could go on a trip so I went to see artists that I had gotten to know on the internet. They were really nice. Compared to those days, my situation seems to be better, however I sometimes miss back then.
Do you usually build your movie set by yourself for your own work?
So far I have made all the sets by myself. For example, if I needed a drawing, then I drew one by myself. I think my job is that I make those things. However, for the costumes, I am not good at sewing so I always have to look for a fashion designer. I also talk to stylists about how we can make her/him be better looking and how we can make an interesting hairstyle.
I strongly feel your stories from your artwork. Is your work normally based on a story? Do you think of a story first then create your artwork? How do you develop an idea when you make your work?
Yes, there is a story. I like telling stories so I want my art to tell a story as well. At first, there is always a topic to tell. Like if I want to make an artwork regarding “love” and I picked up some words from love such as joy, hurt, dangerous, etc., and then I always think of how I will be able to express these words in my art and I draw five drafts based on the words I picked. I leave it for a while and then a few days later I look at them again, if I think these drafts are expressing what I want to tell, then, I start shooting.
I think my art is literature. My method of art is literature. Most of the time, I think literature is in a way subjective. I think literature is a key factor of my art. I always like to express an image related to literature and I think the image can’t be very simple like an advertisement. Most photos of advertisements are very obvious (someone is grabbing a chocolate from the table and showing a package of the chocolate). I used to take photos for advertisements so I know how it is, but I don’t do it anymore. It is too simple for me. I like my way and I want to tell a story in my own way. The obviousness is too boring for me. The simpleness too.
I heard that you are wishing that your artwork would help someone.
When I started my artist career, I was doing it for myself and I was making myself happy. I thought it should be like that. I thought if I am pleased about what I am doing then it is fine. It is like a process of elimination. If it is eliminated from the outside, then that’s fine. In the beginning, I think I was doing a shoot of myself. Then, I gradually thought that I want to communicate to others. If no one looks at my work or no one talks about my art, I think it is worthless. The thing I learnt from creating lots of artwork is that art should be connected to people.
Another objective is to point out the bloody conflicts and horrible incidents that are happening in the world, as well as having another two objectives which are to give people a good influence and to notify them of the many interesting changes in the world. Since I have these aims, my job became what I do now. My job should please people and make them happy. In the process of art, I want to make something which possesses a beautiful appearance and tells you a wonderful fairy tale or allegory.
Studio Mobile Project
In the bund in Waitan, where you can see the architecture of the Shanghai Sokai era, Maleonn had an exhibition called the “moving photo studio” at Bund18’s 18 gallery. This was a departure from his project as well as an exhibition. Maleonn and his five friends will travel 34 provinces and 52 cities in China, and will photograph anyone that they meet.
Please tell me about the project. What kind of people are you going to film?
We will depart on the 17th or 18th of February and spend 6 or 7 months travelling everywhere. I think I will go back to shanghai a couple of times for other jobs.
We will not photograph professional models. We will take photos of the people we meet and our friends who support us. It is like a photo shop in the past. If someone wants to wear the best clothes they have in order to get their photo taken, then that is fine as long as it is enjoyable. They can also bring some props to take a photo, that’s fine as well. If they want to bring their children, that’s fine. I will take photos of anything.
Do you think that there are good old days still remaining?
No. All of the equipment is digital and we take photos of ourselves. So the old good times, like when we had studios, have finished (people used to go to a studio and have their photo taken for special occasions). I liked that kind of atmosphere, however the studio is disappearing. So, that is why I am keen on taking other people’s photos.
What’s your future plan?
I am planning to make a documentary film of how we photographed the people in the project. In the film, I would like to show what kind of events we experienced during the six to seven months of the project trip. It should be interesting. Even I don’t know what is waiting for us
To the friends in the project who are going on the trip with Maleonn “Good Luck!”
Maleonn (Ma Liang)
Born in Shanghai in 1972. An artist. After graduating from his university, he worked for advertisement companies such as Ogilvy & Mather and Analysing Company and Production house. He did work for Suntory and Minolta as a director and a TV commercial art-director. He became one of the most famous directors in the field of advertising in Shanghai at that time, however he suddenly gave up the career status he had and decided to take the path of an artist. Through the unique expressions of his photographic artwork, he is becoming one of the most important artists in Shanghai. From his era of being an art-director at advertisement companies, and now as an artist, many people have been attracted to his art and also his personality.
Text: Hiromi Nomoto
Translation: Atsuka Fukaya