MIGUEL ANGEL PAYANO JR.
MIGUEL ANGEL PAYANO JR.
The artist on his life and work on two continents.
I've read that over the past two decades, you’ve spent most of your time living in China; you also got your MFA there, and you've exhibited there quite a bit. I was just wondering what first took you there and what inspired you to keep working and living there?
I almost have too much to say about this [laughs]. Really early on, I started studying Mandarin when I was 14 years old and really fell in love with the language. I was and am a huge language nerd. It started with the visual allure, just being able to decipher the characters. And then later, just everything about the culture. I first went to China in 1998 with a scholarship to live with a Chinese host family and attend one year of high school even though I had finished high school already and was in college. I was admitted into Williams, but I deferred for a year and I was just like, "I'm going to take this extra year and spend it in China."
Then I was a double major in undergrad, studied language, and continued to go back annually for intensive language study, and I was fluent before finishing college. I had always done art from a very, very young age, but for a long time, I never thought to be an artist because it's too hard to make a living. And being from New York, I had what I would say was an accurate register of how difficult it was. But one summer I spent teaching English in Beijing, I thought, "This is a city and it's pretty developed. There's an art scene here. I could teach English for 15 hours a week and pay for my living expenses. All the other time I could spend being in the studio."
That really kicked it off. Right after undergrad, I moved to Beijing, and then I kind of never left. Eventually, I got married. My wife's Chinese. I actually haven't seen my wife in two years now. That's been rough. I got to the point where I was almost only in China. In 2013, I had a solo show in Hong Kong and I was looking around the room and noticed, "I don't see me in this room." That kind of got me worried about things. I love Asia, I love China. I'm dying to go back, but I realized, "It's off-balance. I need to really reconnect with Black and brown people.” That really got me focused on the new agenda, "I need to go back to the United States. What's the best way to do that?" I thought, "Well, maybe I can do grad school again." And then that's really what got me back. I returned in 2016 to start at Hunter, thinking I’d done grad school already and was just going to coast through it, but that was not the case. I would say grad school at Hunter was a demolition and reconstruction of what I do. And I'm feeling the difference now, for sure.
There's so much I want to ask you about what you just said. I guess the first thing is what has your experience been like being an American from New York with Afro-Caribbean roots and working as an artist in China since you mentioned not seeing yourself?
When you're young, you're reckless. You're more impenetrable because you're naive. Because you don't know as much, you're braver. Or not even brave because being brave is being able to recognize the danger and still do it. Being reckless is not even registering the danger and doing it. I think I was more reckless than brave. I assumed, "I can do it there. I can have my 40 hour studio week there."
I got into the Central Academy of Fine Arts, which is China's top art school. I just walked in. I walked onto the campus and started knocking on doors with slides in my hands. I didn't even know how to apply. Students were working in the studios and I popped in and in Mandarin said, "So I want to go to this school. How do I do it?" And they're like, "Not at this studio, maybe the next one." And then not too long into the search, I met somebody and he was open. Warmly, he said, "Yeah, maybe I'll pass on your slides to our professor and he can have a look." Now, he's actually a well-known artist in China and doing very well. His name is Ma Ke. I eventually tested into his studio, studio number four. Ma Ke had spent some time in Africa and I think that made it easier for him to say, "Yeah, I'm going to help this guy out."
There's a certain skepticism, I think, for a foreign artist that's on the scene there. There's this phrase that people say, ‘from zero to hero’, in Asia. It's true in some cases: these people couldn't cut it where they're from and they go to Asia, they're like, "I'm going to teach English." I don't want to shit on it, as I taught English for many years, but it's sometimes a low bar in terms of getting things done.
Sadly, people in China are, I think, overly focused on what's happening here [in the US] in terms of setting the tenor for what's good. There was a bit of frustration because I was like, "Why am I not blowing the fuck up?" It's my own hubris, but I was just like, "There's no fucking reason why I shouldn't be blowing up." And then I would see these people and I'm like, "Why you? You have no business being here. How the did you get here?" And then I'd realize, "Oh, you're hot in New York. That’s why."
That brings up a lot of really important points though. Because you've spent many years living in China, have you seen those general attitudes toward artists from elsewhere evolve at all in the time that you've spent there?
It's funny. I’d been going to China since '98, but I first moved to China to set up shop at the end of 2003. It was in the beginning-ish of the art boom in Beijing and China. Shit was going through the roof. For most of my time in China, it was almost solely Chinese artist-focused. Foreign artists weren’t even on the radar until later on after there was a bit of a crash in the art bubble in China.
There's no other place in the world where this has ever happened with how many galleries were just appearing. There was an explosion of art in Beijing and in China. And then when the bubble burst, a lot of people had these spaces that would be a museum anywhere else in the world. They were literally tens of thousands of square feet for a gallerist’s first gallery. It's not even an exaggeration. But many of them didn't have the market, or support, or the know-how, or any of it. They just had the cash to throw around on architecture, but they didn't know about or how to navigate the art world outside of their city. I would say the last 10 years, there's been more awareness of the global art ecosystem on their part. Because you always had people that would buy a Picasso or something like that. And it was more like buying Louis Vuitton or a Fendi bag or something. There are a handful of international artists that have been long-term, working and engaging in China and stuff like that. Where I think I'm different is I'm really invested in the culture.
You’ve mentioned how much you like culture and that's something I read was important to your own identity and how your work has evolved. As someone who's lived so immersively in so many different cultures, what's one of the most interesting things you've taken away in being able to compare and contrast them? Or even what you think about the idea of culture in general?
Culture is plastic. It goes back to things like gender identity or any kind of identity–it's all learned behavior. It's like you're born into it and then socialization happens and that's it. I became really attuned to it. First, my parents are immigrants so I grew up speaking Spanish. Spanish was actually my first language. I grew up in an immigrant neighborhood and I was in bilingual classes my first few years of school. English is by far my best language now, but in the beginning, it was too binary for me to be able to really step out of that. But once I got into a third culture, then I started becoming really aware like, "Oh, there are dimensions to this shit," and experiencing culture shock, in reverse. It's like leaving China, having Chinese cultural habits, coming to the United States, engaging with my family, and feeling like things were slightly amiss: "Why are you guys doing that? That's funny." And then realizing, "Oh, I have appropriated Chinese habits and they have appropriated Latin or Afro-Caribbean habits."
Becoming more aware of that and seeing how I'm changing made me aware that all of it can be a choice. If you're really aware and savvy, you can make choices about what you believe. This is a fucked up thing; everybody wants to push this idea of individualism, but I think it's overrated. I think you're like 90 percent the same as everybody else around you, and then there's like a 10 percent difference–you like blue and you listen to this kind of music, and this other person is a vegan. Ninety percent of the other shit is about the same. All cultural values are socialized. You learn them.
You were talking about your reverse culture shock. What were some examples of that, that really stick out to you?
In China, you're always treating, it's reciprocal. If we go to the movies, it’s quietly implied, “If I've got you on the drinks, you've got me on the tickets." Everybody's socialized in the same way, they know how to flow with that. But here, it's not. Here's more like, "Oh, you got me on the tickets, thanks man, I appreciate it, but I still got my own thing here." The reciprocity is not as immediate or there's a different register for it. That was one thing that was the most immediate thing for me on the way back, acknowledging, "Oh, I assume too much." What is polite culture? What is appropriate culture? Often, people will say that in China, people are really reserved about what they say, but some of the most forward stuff I've heard people say has been in China; some people are just straight up, "Oh, man, your face full of pimples. What's up?" There, it's like let me show care by recognizing things and being there with you. It’s not trying to make you feel bad, but it’s out of concern. And then here, it's not, it's an affront. It's like, "How dare you point out this thing that I'm insecure about?"
When it comes to art, it made me aware that people won't be able to see things. Literally. [Ludwig] Wittgenstein has this thing called aspect blindness. There's this image called duckrabbit. If you can imagine a rabbit, its head is facing one way and its long ears are pointing back. Now, if the same image is looked at in the reverse, the ears look like the bill of a duck and the back of the duck head is the front of the head of the rabbit. It's a double image that doesn't change, but how you read it changes.
Aspect blindness is this idea that if you are from a world where there are no ducks, you don't even see the duck, all you see is a rabbit. Or vice versa. This is aspect blindness. That shit happens with culture. In grad school, the second time around, I had experiences like that. For one example, I was in a printmaking class having crit[ique], and one of my classmates, who was actually from Beijing, was chatting with me right before. He was like, "Those hands [in your work], they're kind of like Buddhist hands.” I was referencing Chinese art, because I’d seen it for decades. He knew it and he could register it and he got it right. And we were having this conversation in Mandarin, so no one else heard or understood it. And because it’s grad school and people want to show everybody up, when I was explaining the work in my crit and mentioned the religious aspects of the work, somebody snapped, "What religious aspects? What are you talking about?" They didn’t have the register because they hadn't seen it. They didn’t know what Buddhist art looks like. It's not that it's not there, but because you lack the information or the connection to it, it's as if you're blind. You can't see it.
Now, this happens in multiple directions all the time. And it's not just Chinese. It can happen within any culture. It made me aware that there are these blind spots in work all over the place. As a person who makes the work, I'm like, "What the fuck do I do?" If I make something, I'm referencing something that I'm aware of, or that I know that I'm engaging with. But my audience or the audience in my immediate vicinity doesn't have a register for it. If you're going to say something that's not going to be heard, do you still say it? I got to the point where I'm just like, "Yeah, you’ve got to say it. And if it falls on deaf ears, it falls on deaf ears." This is a recent revelation. I can't reduce myself to meet the limits of the audience. It used to really weigh down on me. Now, if there's a space where I should and can be all of me and all that I know, then that’s the work that I make, the work is that space. If you get it, you get it. If you don't, you don't, it's fine. And it also happens to me too. I might even make something that I don't have the register for.
One example was with a Japanese colleague. I made these sculptures–I think of them as semiotic cosmologies in terms of how they use symbols that intersect each other in non-linear ways, and then produce, for me, linguistic triggers like wordplay. My colleague was looking at the work and the sculpture I made had flowers as nostrils. And then inside there were little vials of cocaine. It was playing off of pollen and smelling with the nose. She noted, "Oh, in Japanese, hana is nose but hana is also flower. It's a homonym." And I had no idea. So, you can also unintentionally produce aspect blindness.
You've spoken about so many things in our conversation so far about your passion for different cultures and for language. Outside of your work, what are some of the other passions or hobbies you enjoy?
Right now, I'm just a two stop kind of person: studio and bed. That's kind of where I'm at. But back in my more hedonistic youth, I used to love to go out. And in Beijing, it was really fun just being young and reckless and dancing. I love dancing and house music. I'm still a house head. I'd be able to go out and dance all night. That's how I met my wife, dancing. There used to be a great club in Beijing called White Rabbit. You would literally go downstairs into this dark space two floors below ground. It felt like an underground black box. I went there and saw this bouncing ball of energy and thought, "Who is that having all the fun?" And then we just hit it off and we could dance together, and have a conversation through dancing.
Who are some of your favorite music artists?
Theo Parrish. I also have certain power songs. I'm a little OCD about it and I will play a song for days on my headphones. It's like my Duracell battery when I put it on and it helps me 'Go!' in the studio. And I tend to like really long songs. So one of the songs is Pharoah Sanders' "Olé." It's a cover off of Coltrane's "Olé", but I think Pharaoh does it better than Coltrane. It's like deep abstract jazz. I don't even know how long the song is, maybe 15 minutes, but I would play it on repeat for days at work. One magical night in Berlin, I danced as Theo spun Pharoah’s "Olé"–who knew it was danceable?!
I'm a house guy. I try to make it a spiritual thing. I feel like it's connecting to something primordial, like when the first people were around the fire and catching the spirits. It gets in you and you release it through movement, and that's why I think I like dancing. It's probably why I got into art in the beginning too. It's just about this channeling of energy.
Is there anything that you'd want the chance to start over again?
I would've partied a little less. But it was all venting because I was such a fucking straight and narrow, good, well-behaved boy until my mid-20s. I was fortunate enough to start going to private schools when I was about 11. I was in a program called Prep for Prep in New York. It’s kind of a scouting program for gifted and talented people of color at an early age and helping them get connected to these private schools and get scholarships. I lived a very different life from my family.
I started going away to school, being around very well-off white people. Basically, because I was in this space and felt like, “I'm so privileged to be here, I better not fuck this up.” If you are trustafarian, as people like to call them, you can fuck up in private school because you’re a Trustafarian. That stuck around with me for years. I always thought, "I just can't indulge." So when I got to my 20s, the floodgates opened. I have my regrets, don't get me wrong, but they're your teachers, right? If you didn't have your teachers, you would still lack that lesson.
Is there anything else that you want to add before we part ways?
Keep an eye out. I'm on the radar. I came back to the US with the idea of, "I'm fucking taking heads." To use Goggins' terms, I'm claiming souls. I came back for that purpose. If you slept on me on the way up, don't know me at the top. So many people see with their ears. It's not like I'm a different artist. I'm the same artist I was five years ago. But because so and so now thinks that I'm good, you now think that I'm good. But I'm like, "You had your chance. You saw me five years ago and you didn’t pick up on me because you didn't know, because you lack vision. And if you lack vision, I don't know you." If you can't recognize gold as gold in the beginning, don't act like you knew at the end. But I know who I am and I know what I’ve got. I only want the people who know without being told. Everything else is fluff. I don't need fluff.