The most enduring cinematic formula produced and replicated thousands of times to cheering audiences is the road movie. The reason is simplicity: take any number of individuals, place them in an odd vehicle, send them across the country, any country, see what happens. Swiss Style found two artists working the same formula.
Jerry Rubin’s exhortation for the Yippie generation, “Do It!,” was meant to be a form of political and social subversion, but ultimately, it seems, those two words have become the motto for those seeking to break into the public eye. Or into business, as Rubin himself did. If the audience can just suspend critical judgment and focus on the real or perceived genius of the act itself, then the deal is sealed and success is guaranteed. It’s what keeps the kerosene-burning “jetman” Yves Rossy in the news, or even the likes of Takeru Kobayashi, whose claim to fame is speed-eating hotdogs. Perhaps there is a similarity in the odd collaboration between Swissbased artists Hélène Sutin and Qian Chong. They met four years ago in a recording studio. Chong was a bassist for the house band Make it Pink, but painting was his deep calling. Sutin, a pianist by training, was juggling family (three daughters), music production work and her own artistic aspirations (she studied at the Beaux Arts in Geneva). It was the painting they had in common, they found out soon enough, and teaming up was just an easy step away. This led to joint efforts at her place, a one storey house with garden that hosts the studio, and then, quickly, to the first exhibitions.
A family affair
Their initial spate of paintings consists mostly of portraits in oil and acrylic on canvas. The mood is a hint dark, at times even a touch threatening. Chong himself is the subject of several paintings, in one he appears with red eyes, werewolf-like, and red lips, giving him a definite androgynous look. Sutin appears, too, but she is caught by a casual eyed, smiling and relaxed. La Cadette (The Youngest) shows a girl crouching, very dark eyes (or behind sunglasses?), on a reddish backdrop, while L’ainée is clowning around, lips painted an oversized red, and her fingers imitating spectacles. A f lash of humour runs through many of their works, often in excessively done lips, but always with a hint of darkness, like the Filliniesque Tofu, a young Asian person reclining on an anonymous background.
The brush strokes are bold, almost casual, seemingly done with the energy of a street artist, the colours dominated by shades of grey. Occasionally, they indulged in more abstract sorties, painting small circles on a transparent green background (Bijoux), or a crazy kaleidoscope that refuses to form a pattern, Les Bonbons. The f lights of quirky humour continued evolving as the two explored different styles, with occasional forays into the fantastical. Sutin, her hair collected into a bulky tapered hood, or Chong virtually unrecognisable in a bluish cap. A series of trees without leaves, the branches striking a surrealistic pose that could be the tentacles of a hydra, recall some dark vision of a desolate planet. And there are even some Magritte-cum-Dali-like absurdities, for instance the Apple Head or a Pinocchio with a kinship to a kiwi.
Where does Sutin begin, where does Chong take over? It is difficult to say. These two painters are not related by blood, nor are they lovers, yet their bond appears as strong as that of siblings and as rich and rewarding as that of lovers. In conversation, they are as complementary as Huey and Dewey. “She wiped out my selfishness,” says Chong, “I’m a changed person because of her. In our work I crave for Hélène’s touch, I demand her opinion”. To which she seamlessly replies: “He stormed into my life with a different culture, opposing views, and alien traditions, but we found balance. There is no debate, work f lows naturally. Painting with him is like painting with my other self.”
For the interview we sit outside, on a cosy terrace f looded by a generous sun. The adjacent garden is tempting our drowsiness with its coolness. On a wooden chair nearby, a palette of mixed oils and acrylics is drying in the sun, apparently forgotten. Qian Chong is from Beijing. He was working on a musical project in a Swiss studio when he met Hélène, who also happened to be studying Chinese. Exploring their tangencies with regards to music, painting and languages, they soon found themselves in front of Hélène’s paintings. He did what would normally be complete anathema: instinctively, he picked up a brush and added a stroke here and there. It was then, facing her canvases, he had a f lashback to a long time ago, when he stopped painting at his parents’ insistence to pursue a more serious occupation.
Chong is 34 and soon to be a father. He talks volubly about his promising beginnings as a talented boy who had made his first drawing at the age of four – a fish in chalk on a stone that took him 30 minutes. Five years later he won three international painting awards and as a teenager rebelled against the traditional art institutions, who in his opinion favoured custom above creative freedom. He left China for Switzerland, where he studied hotel management and music. He had a stint with Europe’s underground scene where he played in a couple of rock bands. The tattoos peeking from underneath his wide neck T-shirt suggest an extravagant past that he labels as his experience of total freedom. At 31, he met Sutin, who, he says, “helped me find a meaning in life, express myself by remembering the past, live the present and believe in the future”.
Sutin, 38, traces her passion for arts to her grandfather who was a painter and a sculptor and to her greatuncle, Auguste Baillet, a violinist, who conducted the Orchestre Symphonique de Lyon, France, for over 20 years.
She started learning the piano at the age of seven and at 24 she graduated from the Geneva Conservatoire. While studying political science at the University of Lausanne, she took courses in sculpture, specialising in animal figures and busts. Her interest in drawing was spurred by her encounter as a ten-year old child with a family friend and neighbour who happened to also be an artist. Since then painting had accompanied her throughout life. She welcomed Qian Chong invading her work as a “revelatory experience”.
The conversation, like their work, apparently, flows naturally. One comes up with an idea. They don’t debate it, merely add or remove elements deemed excessive. It does not matter to them who puts the first strokes as long as both contribute to the work. The active one takes the time it needs to finetune an idea. The other will take over to edit or re-create. Often they both work together from start to finish. It’s a lot of fun they say: “I look at what she is doing, I try to grasp her thought through strokes, patterns and colours she employs and then I follow it,” says Chong.
In the public eye
The subjects were closer to home at the start. Family and friends appeared on the canvasses, self-portraits as well, trees and then odd, abstract tableaux, bold, sunny, almost naive at times. The Bonbons of 2009 evolved to a suite of Sweets, rows of buttons, some organised, others aleatory. The recent production wave washed up a series of “celebrities,” with high-minded humanists and artists like Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin and Picasso sharing space on the easel with the likes of Lenin and Mao. And oddly, dissonantly perhaps, too, it was precisely the Mao portrait that sold for CHF 20,000 at a charity event benef iting the Swiss Red Cross in December last year. Celebrity has its notoriety and its price.
In March of this year, the duo held an exhibition in the Mines d’Art Gallery in Carouge. Guests, acquaintances and curious visitors crowded the sidewalk, f lowing in and out of the gallery. It was an intimate affair, just the right size for the duo. They continue to work at a pace dictated by inspiration as it comes. Hélène Sutin and Qian Chong are in no rush. Their work is private in many ways, a fun parlour game they share with the public, it pleases without shattering barriers, w ithout becoming involved in debates and political controversies, without signing petitions. In October, they will be exhibiting in China, where a gentle view of Chairman Mao might well be appreciated, and by that time, they may even have moved on to different subjects already. Their paintings mirror their experiences, some are short, some are longer, each has its ups and downs, joys and sorrows. Their projects, says Sutin, are driven by what life throws at them in a particular moment and the emotions stirred in its aftermath. “Our work represents our emotions and the greatest wish we have is to be able to share them with as many spectators a s possible.”
Article by Rodica Miron and Marton Radkai