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Published: Tuesday December 3, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday December 3, 2013 MYT 9:27:28 AM

A long way from home

The multi-talented Nobel Prize winner also paints and makes films; this is an ink painting by Gao.

The multi-talented Nobel Prize winner also paints and makes films; this is an ink painting by Gao.

Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian no longer thinks about China.

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.

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

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 two-hour “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 home-cooked vegetarian food.

Failing health has also caused the self-confessed 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 non-professional 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

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Author, Nobel literature laureate, Gao Xingjian, China

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