Sun Xun discusses the woodblock medium, metaphors for history, fictional worlds, and Buddhist influences, with the art writer Yvonne Wang.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Yvonne Wang: Let me begin by asking: When did you first start animating your woodblocks, and why?
Sun Xun: I made animation, and at the start, I didn’t have a reason as to why I used woodcut to make animation. You eat rice every day, then perhaps you switch to a different flavour. Because I have never done it before, I was curious—there aren’t too many other reasons.
YW: Can you talk me through the process involved in making your woodblock animation, and maybe also talk a little bit about the role of music in your work?
SX: My way of doing animation is quite different. I don’t use storyboards a lot of the time. I just draw a picture directly on the woodblock, and then carve it. This is my storyboard, and it’s also the background in the animation. But it’s impossible to do it alone. If I did every woodcut by myself, I would not be able to finish it in my lifetime. I have a team. Then our editing is just using normal applications, because the computer is very simple for me, anything can be used for editing such as Adobe Premiere, AE, Adobe After Effects—they all work fine and are easy to use, including Final Cut. In terms of the role of music in animation and moving images: on the one hand, it expands your limited space; and on the other hand, it fills your very large space. Music makes filmic language richer; it’s very important.
YW: You mentioned you don’t use storyboards a lot of the time and draw directly on the woodblock. So how do you communicate your ideas to your team? How do you delegate work? Do you turn your ideas into a script?
SX: During the process of filmmaking, I only communicate with my team about a scene because the whole script is in my head. I talk about a scene, then we start working. Little by little, the images are all connected, and then it’s only towards the end that my team will know the status of the whole film that we have made. This is the case, since there are very few of us, if we were to follow a storyboard, we would waste…that is, it would take longer and be ineffective.
YW: So the key pictures are still drawn by you.
YW: What is the role of the woodblock medium in your work? Do you see the woodblock medium integral to your concepts or secondary? In other words, what comes first: the medium or the idea?
SX: I don’t think woodcuts are the most important to me, because I have completed more than twenty films, and only two of them are woodcuts. There are also oil paintings and paintings on human bodies. There are many. So maybe the concept is more important than the woodblock, because I may not make any woodcuts later, maybe I will switch to another material.
YW: What is the specificity or characteristic of the woodcut that most appeals to you?
SX: The condition of the woodcut is similar to drawing, and also a bit like relief sculpture. Its language is very direct—this is what attracts me the most. The reason for this characteristic is determined by the material itself, because the combination of knife and wood naturally have a tactile quality.
YW: What is the connection or contradiction between the specificity and temporality of woodblock and animation? You’ve deliberately chosen one of the most time-consuming, labour intensive medium to create animation. Is the laboriousness of the process a kind of metaphor? Do you share William Kentridge’s metaphorics of animation-as-history where history is seen a continuously unfolding process?
SX: Yes, I agree with Kentridge’s statement. Indeed, animation itself is a metaphor for history. On the one hand, it is determined by the effect of the woodcut image. On the other hand, it gives you the experience of life, there is a sense of friction—that is to say, in the process of making the work, you will acutely feel a kind of resistance. But this kind of resistance, we can’t perceive it as an impediment. For example, we are walking against the wind, this wind can’t be said to be your obstruction, because you can definitely walk through it, but you can feel even more the relationship between you and the air during the process of walking. This is a particularly attractive aspect of art.
YW: Your animations are created frame-by-frame. Why did you choose this method, instead of working with digital animation?
SX: Because in the beginning, I made animations by myself. I didn’t have a computer at that time. I could only draw frame-by-frame. Afterwards, my experience was to draw. In terms of digital animation, its principles are in fact the same as that of frame-by-frame animation. Computers cannot replace people to complete the work. Computer animation takes no less effort than hand-drawn ones—it also takes a lot of effort. Because I visited DreamWorks Pictures before, I saw that their production is actually the same, and the energy and time spent are the same. Computers don’t necessarily make it easier. It can also be slower.
YW: Your treatment of the ocean in Time Spy reminded me of Japanese ukiyo-e, specifically Hokusai’s work. Could you talk about the influence of Japanese woodblock and animation on you? You must have watched a lot of Japanese animation when you were in high school.
SX: I’ve watched them of course. The influence of Japanese animation on China is huge. When I was young, I indeed watched Japanese animations, but watching this kind of animation when I was a child is totally different to making them. When I actually made my first animation, I didn’t know that I was doing an animation—just because you watch animations, it doesn’t mean you know how they are made. So Japanese animations may not have had such a big impact on my animations. You said that my waves look like Hokusai’s. His Great Wave of Kanagawa is very famous, but his work is also very similar to the Chinese tradition. So, at a glance, it looks like his; but I was imitating the waves in the Chinese tradition, which may not be as widely publicised as Japanese culture, perhaps due to historical reasons.
For a period of time I was studying paintings from China’s Song dynasty, and after that, I studied Japanese Zen paintings. In fact, it was Japanese Zen paintings that had a great influence on me. Just like the two examples of Japanese artists I gave you just now, those were Zen monks. There were many Zen monks who painted. They painted very well and they inspired me a great deal.
YW: Your animation tells stories about various archetypical characters. In it there are a number of reoccurring motifs, such as the magician, insects, animals, chimeras, and machines. Their continuous metamorphosis seem to drive the progression of the film. Can you talk about the role of archetypes, metamorphosis, and metaphors in your work?
SX: Oh, this is too complicated, I can’t explain it in such a short time. You have listed all my motifs, and there are many sources behind each of them. For example: A mosquito, is it a spreader of disease? Well, it is always quietly changing the face of the world. Is it a metaphor? Yes, it is. It’s a wax figure or a stand in. It is a bit like a magician. A magician is a professional liar, because everyone will be morally condemned for lying, but a magician will not, and he exists legally. This phenomenon is very interesting.
YW: Landscape serves as a poignant backdrop for your woodblock animation. It is often depicted as a site of conflict, exploitation, and oppression. What is the metaphoric significance of landscape in your work?
SX: The conflict of the woodcut itself actually embodies our world, but because we live in this world, we don’t feel it. Nevertheless, the conflict in our world is also very fierce, so I think the woodblock medium may be more in line with a certain temperament of the current world.
YW: Can you talk about your fictional worlds and their temporality in your woodblock animation? What is the relationship between these worlds you create, and our own world? Are they a kind of idiom or fable?
SX: I feel that there are different worlds in my films. It is not only a parallel world to our world, but also my prediction of this world. Because a lot of things in our film Magic of Atlas had already happened in real life, but the production time was too slow. When we were writing the script, some events had not yet occurred in real life. When we were making the film, some things had already happened. So this film is more like an allegorical film. Of course, it is also a parallel world or it can also be considered as a mirror of the real world, or in other words, the gene or DNA of the real world can be discovered in the film, so it predicted the trajectory of the real world. And the real world is really moving towards the direction of our script for the film.
YW: Can you discuss some of these events that occurred?
SX: There are too many specific things. For example, there is an amnesia powder scene in our film in which people of this country simply lost their memory. They cannot remember this history and so they begin a new era—isn’t this what’s happening in the real world? All of us around the world were isolated at home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. China was still in lockdown. Isn’t this a lost memory? Because this memory is destined to disappear, regardless of whether it is on a personal or political level, this period of history will be made to disappear.
YW: I’ve read that you were influenced by the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell, and that you greatly admired the works of Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein, and Leonardo da Vinci. Could you share some Chinese or Eastern influences on your work?
SX: The calligrapher Su Shi, Wang Anshi, Huang Tingjian, Wang Xizhi, and also Hakuin Ekaku and Sengai Gibon from Japan. They have all inspired me a great deal.
Buddhist scriptures have also had a huge influence on me. For example, the Śūraṅgama Sūtra is very good. It has solved many problems in my paintings or problems in my works. For instance, through the Śūraṅgama Sūtra, you learn how to understand your mind. Take painting, for example—who is painting? Is it your brain, your hand, your consciousness, your body, your mind, or is it another you besides yourself who is painting? Or are you merely acting in accordance with Heaven’s decree? Who is painting? You can reflect on it through this line of inquiry.
So when our consciousness is attached to the image, do you continue to direct your attention to it, or do you detach from it? Do you keep a distance from your painting, or become one with it? These are all approaches to painting and also ways of understanding. According to the Diamond Sutra, “All conditioned phenomena are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow, like dew drops or a flash of lightning.” All phenomena or dharma are interrelated and arise in dependence with other phenomena. From such a perspective, an object or an image is like a dream in that it is transient or impermanent. Does painting also have dharma that is dependent on other dharmas? You can say so because you have paint, brush, you learn to draw, and then after your art education you begin to paint—this is also a union of causes and conditions. But if none of these exist, then is there such as thing as painting? There still is.
Therefore, from the perspective of Buddhism, painting is within your nature, and only when you encounter an object of meditation is your nature for painting kindled and materialised. So when you are painting, what you paint is not a painting but a kind of object of meditation—and what is this object of mediation? For example, I’m here right now, but what is the object of meditation? The object of meditation is the world. Or is it the state of your existence, or something you see that is particularly beautiful that moves you, and if it moves you, then another question arises, what is it exactly that moves you? Why is it that the thing that moves you doesn’t have the same effect on others? Through it another problem arises which is yet another object of meditation.
Sun Xun mainly works in drawing and animation. His aesthetic vocabulary is grounded in intense and viscerally immediate hand drawing, which he weaves into illusory narratives and metamorphic landscapes. Fusing the figurative and the fantastic, his work stems from his own grappling with sociological theories and other dominant attitudes about art and society. In recent years, Sun Xun has incorporated diverse materials (i.e., newspaper, Chinese ink, raw pigments) and media (i.e., bookmaking, woodcuts, and stop-motion animation) into his work as a way to probe the logic of narrative-based forms and play with non-linear expressions of time and place. His work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at Vancouver Art Gallery and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. His recent group exhibitions include Hawai’i Triennial, Asia Society Triennial, and Havana Biennial.
Yvonne Wang is an independent art writer based in Singapore. Her research interests lie in understanding how culturally and historically embedded mediums become contemporary and global. She holds an MA in Asian Art Histories from Goldsmiths, University of London, facilitated through LASALLE College of the Arts, University of the Arts Singapore. Her thesis focused on the employment of printmaking as a conceptual device in contemporary Chinese art. She also holds an MSc in Politics and Communication from the London School of Economics and Political Science.