A long way from home

No­bel lau­re­ate Gao Xingjian no longer thinks about china.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - By CLARISSA OON

IT feels very far away,” he says over a crack­ling phone line from Paris, where he has lived since 1987. “I no longer miss it,” he says in Man­darin of the coun­try where he spent the first 47 years of his life, and which be­came grist for famed works such as his epic novel of self-dis­cov­ery, Soul Moun­tain (1989), and ab­sur­dist drama, Bus Stop (1983).

“My works are banned there, even my name is banned there. So it has noth­ing to do with me any more,” the 73-year- old says without ran­cour in his voice.

He caused a storm in the first half of the 1980s with out­spo­ken plays and works of lit­er­ary the­ory that broke the mould of so­cial­ist re­al­ism.

He be­came per­sona non grata in China with the 1990 pub­li­ca­tion of Es­cape, a play about the bru­tal crack­down on stu­dent demon­stra­tors the pre­vi­ous year in Tianan­men Square.

The re­sult is that many young main­land Chi­nese today would not have heard of Gao, the first Chi­nese to win the No­bel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture; he was awarded the prize in 2000.

Back in 1987, he bought a one-way ticket out of China to take up a writ­ing fel­low­ship in Ber­lin, and never re­turned.

Since then, Gao, who also speaks and writes in French, has carved out a new life as a French res­i­dent and global cit­i­zen.

A con­sum­mate artist who also paints and makes films, he is well-re­spected in his adopted coun­try, which con­ferred him the pres­ti­gious Le­gion d’Hon­neur in 2000.

His works have been trans­lated into more than 30 lan­guages and he is fre­quently in­vited by arts fes­ti­vals, mu­se­ums and uni­ver­si­ties around the world to speak or show his work.

Just last month, he was in Sin­ga­pore for the Sin­ga­pore Writ­ers Fes­ti­val, where he gave a key­note lec­ture on lit­er­a­ture and aes­thet­ics. That event also saw the world pre­miere of Gao’s third film, Re­quiem For Beauty, a twohour “cinematic poem” – as he de­scribed it – on artis­tic cre­ation.

Shot mainly in his stu­dio in Paris, it in­cor­po­rates video footage of his trav­els – from the neon-lit streets of Tokyo to the coasts of Ire­land – and po­etry in three lan­guages: French, Chi­nese and English.

Gao wrote in the first two lan­guages and got a friend to do the English trans­la­tion.

In re­cent years, con­tem­po­rary China barely reg­is­ters in his works, ex­cept tan­gen­tially through sym­bols, such as in his spec­tral, ab­stract black-and-white Chi­nese ink paint­ings.

These days, it is is­sues in Europe – such as its lin­ger­ing fi­nan­cial cri­sis – which feel more im­me­di­ate to him.

“I like Europe. From young, I have been very in­ter­ested in Western cul­ture,” says Gao, who stud­ied French lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at the Bei­jing For­eign Lan­guages In­sti­tute in the early 1960s.

He is crit­i­cal of “nar­row, chau­vin­is­tic” ap­proaches to cul­ture and says: “In my cre­ative work, you can’t dis­tin­guish be­tween in­flu­ences from East and West and there is no need to, they are all my cul­ture.”

The writer is so at home in his adopted coun­try that he says he wants to live out his re­main­ing years and be buried in cos­mopoli­tan Paris.

He lives there with his wife and part­ner of more than two decades, Ce­line Yang, a writer in her late 40s who left China af­ter the Tianan­men crack­down in 1989. They have no chil­dren.

Gao has strug­gled with high blood pres­sure and had two heart op­er­a­tions in the early 2000s.

“I used to like French food, but now my health is no good and French food is very high in choles­terol, so I don’t eat it any more,” he says with a laugh. He now eats mostly home­cooked veg­e­tar­ian food.

Fail­ing health has also caused the self­con­fessed worka­holic to slow down a lit­tle, though he is still paint­ing, writ­ing and mak­ing films.

“The French like to take hol­i­days, they all leave Paris in the sum­mer. I’ve never taken a break in 26 years. Why? Be­cause I feel I have al­ready wasted a large part of my life,” he says, re­fer­ring to his 20s and 30s. Artis­tic cre­ation was for­bid­den dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion and he was sent to do me­nial labour in the coun­try­side.

“Now that I have gained the free­dom to create since com­ing to France, I im­merse my­self in my work. It is not a bur­den but a joy.”

Film­mak­ing is one of the dreams that he has man­aged to ful­fil in re­cent years, he says.

He has been in­ter­ested in film since he was 18 and read a Chi­nese trans­la­tion of the Rus­sian film pi­o­neer Sergei Eisen­stein’s the­o­ries.

His first film, Sil­hou­ette/Shadow, a med­i­ta­tion on life and death, was made in 2003. It was funded by the French city of Mar­seille, which des­ig­nated that year Gao Xingjian Year and or­gan­ised events to cel­e­brate his work.

He made his se­cond film, Af­ter The Flood, in 2008, on the theme of earth­quakes and de­struc­tion.

The al­lure of cinema for him is that “film as a medium is ca­pa­ble of meld­ing all the dif­fer­ent art forms such as paint­ing, the­atre, dance, mu­sic and po­etry into a whole. So you can con­sider my films as ‘to­tal art’.”

In ad­di­tion to be­ing an artist, Gao is a film the­o­reti­cian and has just fin­ished writ­ing an es­say about the six-year process of mak­ing Re­quiem For Beauty, which was funded by Hong Kong’s non-profit Reverie Foun­da­tion.

Like his pre­vi­ous films, it is not meant for com­mer­cial dis­tri­bu­tion and is not driven by a lin­ear nar­ra­tive.

“My films don’t tell a story, nor do they comment on an is­sue.”

He likens them to po­etry. “Just like the free­dom of writ­ing a poem, there is a free­dom in the cam­era work, in the se­quenc­ing of scenes, though, of course, there is a thought process be­hind it.”

A to­tal of 38 ac­tors were in­volved in Re­quiem For Beauty, some of them ut­ter­ing Gao’s po­etic text.

They in­clude stage ac­tors, dancers and non­pro­fes­sional ac­tors like his wife Ce­line.

As di­rec­tor, Gao was in­volved at ev­ery stage of the film­mak­ing process, from con­cep­tion to edit­ing. About 3,000 hours of footage were shot, to be whit­tled down to two hours, he says wryly. “It was a mam­moth un­der­tak­ing.” Nor was be­ing in the film di­rec­tor’s chair eas­ier the third time around, says Gao, who also di­rects plays in France.

One chal­lenge was that he did not want the ac­tors in Re­quiem For Beauty to give nat­u­ral­is­tic per­for­mances, but to be bla­tantly arty and the­atri­cal, “so that ev­ery shot can be like the com­po­si­tion of a paint­ing”.

“Ev­ery film is an ex­per­i­ment, ev­ery one is rid­dled with prob­lems. But af­ter we fin­ish, ev­ery­one is very happy watch­ing the fi­nal film,” he con­cludes with a laugh. — The Straits Times, Sin­ga­pore/Asia News Net­work

The multi-tal­ented No­bel Prize win­ner also paints and makes films; this is an

ink paint­ing by Gao.

In ex­ile: Gao Xingjian, shown here at the 2008 Frankfurt book fair, no longer misses his home­land. — reuters

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