Your mother passed away in 2009. Do you feel her presence in the exhibition?
Yes. She had an accident trying to save the life of a bird in a very tall tree and fell. That was really sad for me. But before she died we worked together on this project. She told me stories and we published a book. Our whole family works on this installation each time [it’s going on display], and we feel my mother is still there. Sometimes we find an object we don’t recognise, so my sister and I try to remember: what was that time?
You’ve shown “Waste Not” in eight galleries around the world. Do you plan where the objects will fit each time?
Yes because the location, the space, the size is always different. And this work, I think, is not only an installation, but a family event. So we [me, my sister and wife and daughter] still organise the things each time.
You mainly create installations now. Do you still think of yourself as a painter?
I didn’t really stop but in the early 1990s I had new thoughts about painting – not as copying real things but as a conceptual art. I want to make paintings that invite the audience to have a dialogue with them.
Are you making a statement on consumerism by bringing “Waste Not” to the west?
In any country we have the same things. Western people understand “Made in China” as meaning very cheap and bad quality, but here are some things – a pan, for example – that are older than me, great quality and made in China.
Your mother’s neighbourhood was demolished for the Beijing Olympics. You must be cynical about the Games.
I call it “Olympic tyrannism”. Daily life in Beijing wasn’t easy during the Olympics. I lived in the countryside in my studio for that month.
Why were your “Eating the City” sculptures made of biscuits?
Food is essential for humans, but biscuits – though they smell good and are sweet and cheap – are not helpful for the body. Biscuits are simple, like building materials, but they’re bad things. Like these big, rapidly built cities.
In London you constructed the city inside Selfridges. Were you being ironic?
No. Before, I had only shown this in museums and I wanted to let people know that art is beside your body. It’s just beside you – it’s not only in the special “art” space for the “cultured” people. That’s really important for me.
So why did your earlier work “Eating Landscape” use sophisticated food?
I called it Edible Penjing. Penjing is the Chinese art of growing a whole landscape in a small pot [similar to bonsai]. I made the installation in London in 2000. At that time my English was zero, so I thought: “Well, I can cook; my cooking is much better than my art!” And people here say Chinese food is brilliant. So I made a painting they could eat: they could eat my culture.
Would you say your art is more about the process than about the outcome?
My art is my life; they are the same things. In [my wife’s and my] studio we’re living with the artwork. Also our living room has an artwork my wife made, an installation of a luggage conveyor belt. That has become the sofa – people can sit on the belt to talk – and we have a shipping box as a table. Against the wall is a security desk my wife and I work at.
Was there a plan?
No plan. [Laughs] When I was very young I wanted to be a very famous artist [but now] my daughter and my family – that is my life.
Tomorrow I may die but I just worry about my daughter because she’s very little. But there’s no plan.
What does God mean to you?
I think my God is me. I can count on myself. I can decide myself. Other people cannot decide for me.
Is there anything you regret?
I’m fine. I don’t want to change the past.
Are we all doomed?
I think in the future everything is nothing. But, for me, to have nothing is to have something; they’re the same thing. In Chinese we have two words. Here you have air; you cannot see it, you cannot touch it or feel it. But you think: “Here is air” – so you know here we have something. Seeing nothing and having something are the same thing. So I can say, in the future, the whole world is nothing.
1966 Born in Beijing
1989 Graduates in fine arts from his home town’s Capital Normal University
1992 Marries the artist Yin Xiuzhen
2003 Exhibits work in “Alors, la Chine?” at Centre Pompidou, Paris
2005 Founds Polit-Sheer-Form collective
2009 First US solo show, “Projects 90”, at Museum of Modern Art, New York
2012 “Waste Not” at the Curve gallery, Barbican Centre, London