A few years ago, names such as Zhang Xiaogang, Liu Xiaodong, and Zhang Huan might have drawn blank stares from Western collectors. Now, with an explosion of museums, galleries, and prices, China has become the hottest stop on the international art circuit. In the emerging cultural capitals of Beijing and Shanghai, the author examines the forces in a stampede of new money, unleashed talent, and national pride.
With his closely cropped hair, ever burning cigarette, and trademark round eyeglasses, Zhang Xiaogang has become the face of Chinese art, an unlikely rock-star figure at the head of a mania sweeping auction houses from Beijing to New York. In the mid-1990s, his work was banned in his home country. Now it hangs in state-approved galleries, with his individual paintings fetching between $500,000 and $3 million.
Artist Zhang Xiaogang and two of his paintings in his studio, in Beijing’s Liquor Factory district. Photograph by Jonathan Becker.
Zhang, 49, didn’t come by his status easily. When he was a boy, in the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution, his parents were sent to a “study camp” in the countryside, forced to give up their government posts and leave their children behind. Raised for several years by an aunt, Zhang immersed himself in drawing, only to be sent to re-education camp as a teenager. Following the collapse of the Cultural Revolution upon Mao’s death, in 1976, he made it into the prestigious Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts, where he didn’t really distinguish himself. After hitting upon his mature style in the early 1990s, Zhang ran into another obstacle when authorities deemed his paintings unfit for public display.
As the country gradually opened itself economically and culturally, he found himself back in favor. In 1997, Beijing galleries started showing his work—which mainly comprises large, haunting portraits of hollow-eyed Chinese citizens—and now he is one of China’s highest-earning artists.
Zhang’s big international moment came in 2006, when London gallery owner Charles Saatchi purchased A Big Family for $1.5 million at a Christie’s London auction. Since that sale, Zhang’s prices have continued to explode: his Tiananmen Square fetched $2.3 million at a 2006 Christie’s auction in Hong Kong, and another canvas, Chapter of a New Century: Birth of the People’s Republic of China, went for more than $3 million at a September 2007 Sotheby’s sale in New York. Unlike so many Chinese artists of his and previous generations, Zhang has not had to expatriate to make his fortune. He runs a studio in Beijing, where he smokes and paints like a fiend to keep up with demand.
Once an empire of enforced egalitarianism, this nation of 1.3 billion is waking up from a stupor of isolation as Shanghai and Beijing prepare to become capitals of a China-dominated world culture. And once wary state officials have managed to befriend a few of the country’s most rebellious artists just in time for Beijing’s giant 2008 photo op, the Games of the XXIX Olympiad. “The place is just an environmental disaster, but there’s a kind of energy,” says noted New York architect Basil Walter, who has collected Chinese art during visits to his Shanghai office. “In the art districts, ladies in Bentleys pull up, dressed to the nines, and slog through the mud to get to a gallery where they’re seeing a new artist’s work, while some deranged person is quivering off to the side. There’s a visual bombardment that makes the place really exciting.”
A boom of this magnitude requires distinctive artists and eager collectors with cash to burn. China has both. Consider the case of Newly Displaced Population, a 2004 canvas by realist painter Liu Xiaodong, which presents a critical view of the Chinese government’s displacement of more than one million people as a result of building the Three Gorges Dam. Not only was this painting left uncensored but it sold at the Beijing Poly International Auction in November 2006 for $2.75 million, at the time a world record for a painting by a contemporary Chinese artist. It was snapped up by a mainland collector: Zhang Lan, a female restaurateur who is becoming the Wolfgang Puck of China. Her upscale chain, South Beauty, earned a reported $25 million in 2006, and she aims to open 100 new locations by 2008. Expressionist architect Philippe Starck has designed a showpiece South Beauty restaurant for Times Square, which is to come complete with a gallery to show off her purchases.
Another major Chinese collector is Hong Kong real-estate heiress Pearl Lam. At her penthouse soirées, I have run into American collector Stephan Edlis, Tate Liverpool curator Simon Groom, and Art Basel emeritus Samuel Keller, as well as local stars Lorenz Helbling, founding director of ShanghART Gallery, and Victoria Lu, formerly creative director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Shanghai. “I thought to myself, For Chinese contemporary art to be strong, I had to be a bridge,” says Lam.
Until recently, Chinese contemporary art was purely an export market. Baron Guy Ullens, a Belgian philanthropist, was an early collector, beginning with purchases he made in the mid-1980s on business trips to China. Uli Sigg, Swiss ambassador to China from 1995 to 1998, was another who put together an encyclopedic selection of Chinese contemporary art at a time when most works sold for a few hundred dollars. Another important “foreigner” from this period was David Tang, the entrepreneur who turned Mao jackets into the Shanghai Tang brand. Born in Hong Kong, but the product of a British education, Tang assembled his collection by combing through the squalid studios where Chinese artists worked in the late 1980s.
Tang did everything to promote Chinese contemporary art in the 1990s, even inviting Princess Diana to the 1995 Venice Biennale, which featured several Chinese artists. “I said, ‘Would you please come?’ and she agreed,” Tang says. Just one problem, as Tang recalls: when Princess Di’s private secretary conducted a walk-through of the show, he was stunned by Liu Wei’s graphic paintings. “He wasn’t going to allow the Princess to stand before [works like these] and have her picture taken,” Tang says. With the photographers banned, they took her through the gallery with her back turned to the most scandalous pieces. At a celebratory dinner held afterward, Tang stood on his chair and announced, “This is a new dawn for Chinese art!” The crowd applauded. He remembers thinking, “I’ve got the most famous person in the world to come and give us a lift. If this doesn’t succeed, nothing will.”
More than a decade later, the rest of the world caught on. In March 2006, Sotheby’s held its first New York sale of Chinese contemporary art, attracting both Asian and Western collectors, bringing in $12.7 million, and establishing auction records for Zhang Xiaogang, Zhang Huan, Liu Xiaodong, and Fang Lijun, among 20 other artists. In their springtime 2007 auctions, Christie’s saw $36 million and Sotheby’s $27 million in sales of Asian contemporary art at their Hong Kong branches, with Chinese artists delivering the majority of the lots on offer.
Mainland auction houses have also entered the fray in the last two years. Poly Auctions, the most lucrative auction house in China, is one of a number of cultural enterprises affiliated with Beijing Poly Group, a former unit of the People’s Liberation Army now owned by the state. Its chief competitor, Guardian, opened in 1993. It was founded by Wang Yannan, daughter of Zhao Ziyang, the late Communist Party leader who was deposed and put under house arrest when he opposed the use of armed troops in Tiananmen Square, in 1989.
The Chinese houses seem to encourage speculation. It’s not uncommon to see the same piece sold over and over again in a single year, rising in price at each sale. Nor is it rare for an artist or dealer to place new works directly into auction, then bring along friends and sympathetic collectors to bid up the price. But with the market this hot, buyers from New York and London have been showing little compunction in flipping contemporary Chinese artworks. Today’s $500,000 painting could fetch $1 million tomorrow.
“When people talk about the high prices, I would say that Chinese artists believe that their top artists deserve to be right alongside the best artists from anywhere else,” says Charles Saatchi, who plans to mount a show called “The Revolution Continues: New Art from China” at his new London gallery this spring. “I like to think that any of the works I will be showing could be included in a Whitney Biennial, and you wouldn’t have to stand in front of it and say, ‘That’s pretty good for a Chinese artist.’ ”
A possible Chinese counterpart to Saatchi—someone who can single-handedly send prices skyrocketing—is Joseph Lau, a Hong Kong real-estate mogul, who bought Andy Warhol’s Green Car Crash for $71.7 million at Christie’s New York in 2007. But collectors from the mainland are seemingly more circumspect. Yang Bin, an automotive dealer in China, and Zhang Haoming, owner of Beijing’s upscale Le Quai restaurant, have helped the boom along with big purchases, but they have yet to pay Saatchi prices. And then there is Guan Yi, who has an enviable private collection on display in his Beijing warehouse. Guan refuses to put a cash value to his collection, saying, “I think about art—I care about art.”
Even as late as 2002, none of this seemed possible. Beijing had just begun developing its contemporary-art district, Factory 798, a former munitions plant whose Bauhaus-style architecture attracted dozens of artists and dealers. The most notable gallery in the 798 complex is the Beijing Commune, founded by Leng Lin, a curator who has known artists such as Zhang Xiaogang and Yue Minjun throughout their careers. Today, Factory 798 has been designated a “historic district” by the city of Beijing, and visitors already complain that it has become overgrown and too commercial. And in the few years since Factory 798 established itself, additional galleries have sprung out of the crowded streets. “If you go to the other art centers of the world—London, New York, or Los Angeles—you may hear about a new gallery opening up here or there,” says Basil Walter. “In Beijing, you hear about an entire neighborhood opening up overnight. The construction happens so quickly, and the number of galleries and the amount of art that’s proliferating is just astounding.”
Shanghai’s smaller gallery district, named 50 Moganshan Lu, for the address at which it is located, has begun to spread out to the adjoining neighborhood and is in the midst of an explosion of new museums. MoCA Shanghai (founded by Hong Kong jewelry designer Samuel Kung), the Pompidou Center’s Shanghai satellite branch (scheduled to open by 2009), and the Zendai Museum (backed by Shanghai real-estate developer Dai Zhikang and scheduled to open in 2010) join the state-run Shanghai Art Museum and municipal Duolun Museum of Modern Art.
“It is an extraordinary scene,” says Arne Glimcher, an éminence grise who just returned from a tour of China during which he signed Zhang Xiaogang and Zhang Huan to Pace Wildenstein, his prestigious New York gallery. “It is a little bit like Germany after the Second World War. With the culture being annihilated, it was fresh to start again. Or like America in the 50s, when we didn’t really have an indigenous style, so we were fresh to start from scratch.”
Painter Yue Minjun built a splendid compound for himself on the outskirts of Beijing in the Songzhuang district, a kind of Chinese East Hampton, given the number of artists living there. His neighbor Fang Lijun went further, opening a chain of art-filled restaurants in Beijing. On a recent trip, Agnes Gund, the president emerita of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, feasted on a buffet on Yue Minjun’s lawn. She also stopped by the studio of Lin Tianmiao, the sole female artist in this group of alpha males, whose home and studio are contained within a restored farmhouse.
Back in Shanghai, bad-boy artist Zhang Huan has taken over a vast industrial complex in the southern part of the city, which exceeds in size and scale even the most lavish studios in Beijing. In 1994, this artist covered himself in honey and fish oil at a public toilet, remaining motionless for an hour as insects covered his flesh. Now he has a production line that rivals that of Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, employing more than 100 craftsmen who live in an adjoining dormitory. Wood-carvers chip away at blocks for prints that will be larger than billboards, and welders work on sculptures more than 25 feet tall. In a room filled with hundreds of canvases, assistants sprinkle ash, like Buddhist monks making sand mandalas, to create photo-realistic images. The powdery substance is created in his studio, as well as collected from temples where people burn incense; the artist has his own truck to drive around to collect it.
Topping the list as the most independent of all of the self-made artists in China, Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing, grew up in Xinjiang, and saw his father, once Mao’s favorite poet, discredited during the Cultural Revolution and forced to clean latrines. He left for New York in 1981, completely pessimistic about the future of art in China, only to return 12 years later, when his father fell ill. During the 1990s, he was the chief agitator in the Beijing art scene, his antics culminating in a show he curated called “Fuck Off,” which coincided with the Shanghai Bienniale 2000. With little hope of a further art career, either inside or outside of China, Ai Weiwei built a home for himself, modeled on the traditional gray brick courtyard houses found in central Beijing, and launched himself as a self-taught architect.
Now heralded as an international artist of the first rank, Ai Weiwei sent 1,001 Chinese citizens to Kassel, Germany, this past summer as his contribution to the Documenta arts festival. In 2008 he will see his crowning achievement unveiled at the Summer Olympics: Beijing’s new Olympic stadium, often called “the bird’s nest,” on which he collaborated with the architecture firm of Herzog & de Meuron. But he still works with a wary sense of freedom. “It’s like the movie Home Alone,” he told me when I visited his studio. “The parents have gone away … but they can always come back.”
His sense of caution may be justified. Just two summers ago, government agencies in Shanghai and Beijing removed numerous artworks from galleries after a long period when censorship of the arts had seemed to cease. Earlier this year, the staff of the Duolun Museum of Modern Art, in Shanghai, walked out over disagreements with authorities about what art could or could not be shown. Wang Qingsong, an artist who stages large photographic tableaux akin to movie sets that sell for up to $320,000 at auction, was questioned for two days and had his negatives seized after a model complained about the nudity in his latest production.
Yet the feeling of suppression has definitely subsided. Many believe that the Chinese government simply has bigger concerns: the Internet and movies—mass culture that more people see and are influenced by than contemporary art. On a more cynical note, it could be that promoting contemporary art counterbalances China’s human-rights record, in addition to generating lots of cash.
If anything demonstrates a change in mood, it is the inclusion of the iconoclasts Cai Guo-Qiang and Ai Weiwei in the Olympic program. Cai is possibly the most famous Chinese art expatriate, having left his homeland in 1986 and launched a spectacular international career. Despite his status as a “foreigner,” Cai was permitted to be the curator of China’s first pavilion at the Venice Biennale, in 2005. Now he will bring one of his famous fireworks displays—seen in the skies throughout the world—to the Olympics. In acknowledgment of his new role within China, Cai is building a studio within the ruins of a double-courtyard house two blocks from the Forbidden City, the 18th-century imperial residence that was handed over to the mayor of Beijing when the Communists took over, in 1949.
A key player in bringing the often politically inconvenient artists into the state’s embrace is Fan Di’an, head of the National Art Museum of China, in Beijing. He has been selected to orchestrate the cultural activities at the Olympic Village and other key sites in Beijing. In addition to commissioning fireworks maestro Cai Guo-Qiang, Fan has persuaded Chinese film director Zhang Yimou to help with the ceremonies. (Steven Spielberg, a consultant on the project, has threatened to resign over China’s role in the Darfur genocide, but has yet to do so.)
Most established Chinese artists built their careers without the benefit of gallery representation (in contrast to Western artists, who can’t seem to tie their sneakers without a major dealer). Zhang Huan, who moved to New York in 1998 and now has returned to China to set up his studio in Shanghai, jumped from Max Protetch to Jeffrey Deitch to Luhring Augustine, burning bridges along the way. China’s other powerful artists—Ai Weiwei, Cai Guo-Qiang, Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun, as well as Zhang Xiaogang—reached the international market without a gallery. Foreign dealers, while welcomed for sales, were not trusted enough for long-term relationships.
China’s rising art stars are more likely to go the gallery route. Yang Fudong, born in 1971, an artist whose atmospheric films have been featured at virtually every biennial and major art museum in the past five years, has worked with Helbling at ShanghART and more recently with the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York and Paris. Wang Qingsong began his career through his association with Meg Maggio, who brought the artist to the attention of the Albion Gallery, in London, and art dealer Jeannie Greenberg Rohatyn, in New York.
Twentysomething dealer Fang Fang, director of the Star Gallery, in Beijing, has made a specialty of scooping up artists fresh out of school, a generation he calls “the naughty kids.” As opposed to their elders, who often came from poverty, these artists have had travel visas from an early age. Chen Ke, one of Star’s stars, graduated from the Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts in 2005 and has already had a gallery show. Her fairy-tale-like pieces, peopled with forlorn heroines and sad-faced clowns, might have come from anywhere. In interviews, she talks about personal expression, apparently seeing no need to define herself or her art as particularly Chinese.
Young Chinese artists are free to think as selfishly as anyone who wields a paintbrush in Brooklyn or on the Lower East Side. It seems the Chinese government has managed to defuse the explosive potential of contemporary art simply by allowing it to flourish.
Barbara Pollack has been covering the contemporary-art scene since 1994 for The New York Times, Art & Auction, and Art News.
In 1982, after the Cultural Revolution ended, there were about 100 graduating art majors from universities in China. Today there are over 260,000. The modern art scene began in the 1980s, and became a key period in Chinese contemporary art. New Wave artists included Wang Guangyi, Xu Bing, Geng Jianyi and Huang Yongping, a unifying feature amongst them being their works’ likeness to the Western styles of Picasso, Munch and the Dada artists. International contemporary art styles began to influence the work of Chinese artists. Avant-Garde, in the larger context, is the forward thinking movement in the art world of experimental and innovative styles. The China Avant-Garde show in 1989 at the National Gallery of Art in Beijing became a significant moment in the Chinese art scene. The show was the first contemporary art exhibition permitted in an official forum as well as the first Chinese authority-sponsored exhibition of innovative and new age art. The entire exhibit lasted for a few hours. Due to the nature of the artistic message, the show ended after a performance artist entered the show with a gun and shot two bullets through her work—a pair of mannequins in phone boxes. Although gaining popularity for the event, the artist Xiao Lu said the motivation for her action was not political or aesthetic, as the media had portrayed. Rather it was an emotional action. In shooting the mannequins she was in fact shooting a reflection of herself. Despite the motivation, she still inspired many with her actions. In the early 1990s the art scene in Beijing became centered on artists in Dong Un behind the city’s Third Ring Road. Artists sometimes moved four or five times a year. Shows were held in basements in out-of-the-way areas; at longest their exhibits stayed open for a few days. When not in public areas, art was displayed to small audiences in private homes, leading to the term ‘Apartment art.’ The artist Wang Gongxin told the China Daily, “Young artists of the time were looking for a private space to transform into a contemporary space.” In the early 1990s, a new movement began in the Chinese art world. Known as Cynical Realism, it focused on the already rising trend in the pursuit of individual expression by artists. They broke away from traditional artistic trends, considered to be part of a collective mindset existing since the Cultural Revolution. Through their art they focused on themes of social and political issues, as well as events since the early 1900s. They offered their publics a realist perspective and interpretation of the rapidly changing culture as China. Artists working in the late 1990s and early 2000s explored the social isolation connected with China’s economic reforms, as well as gave a criticism of Chinese icons. In the 1990s, the art scene was still largely underground until an international event moved it into the spotlight. It began with the visit from Princess Diana at the 1995 Venice Biennial. The exhibit was notable for featuring several Chinese artists and brought Chinese art came to the forefront in the art world. On the Chinese modern art scene, Australian writer John Hopkins called it, “One of the most vibrant scenes is contemporary art. New movements multiply with bewildering speed, as cities, artists and international dealers promote their favorites.” Contemporary art grew more accepted by major schools. The Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, China’s top art school, has had numerous artist celebrities graduate from its ranks. Less than 10 percent of those who apply are accepted. Among the famous contemporary artists that have studied there are Liu Wei, Fang Lijun and Zhang Huan. In addition to an impressive list of alumni, the school’s teachers are also highly recognized. Faculty members include the artists Liu Xiaodong, whose works have sold for as much as $8.2 million.
Students attending this school have been known to be less interested in politics and more focused on the artist’s personal struggle. Though continuing with the spirit of experimenting with the arts, students are traditionally taught to paint by painting the same figurative many times as a form of honing their skills. Beijing is still the main hub for contemporary art, though the modern art movement has spread all over China. In Qingdao, art clubs have sprouted around the city, particularly with the help of social media. The universities offer art degrees and the local Qingdao Art Museum now features modern art exhibits considered improper not long ago.
THE ECONOMIST LONDON
Contemporary art in China
The wild, wild world of the Chinese contemporary-art market
Made in China
BUYING Chinese contemporary art is not for the faint-hearted. There are no museums in China to offer the validation that contemporary-art collectors in the West desire, and few independent critics or curators to judge whether a living artist’s work is good enough to stand the test of time. Yet that is not putting off buyers. Last year Asia accounted for nearly a quarter of global auction revenue, nearly twice what it was two years ago. Some of this can be explained by sales of wine and watches, which have a growing following among the Chinese, but the lion’s share is made up of art. Among the ten most expensive artists working today, two are Chinese—Zhang Xiaogang and Zeng Fanzhi. Yet the Chinese contemporary-art market is extremely volatile, bidding at auctions in mainland China is often rigged and galleries follow the auction houses’ lead on prices far more than they do in the West. So how does the neophyte collector find his or her way through this jungle?
Before 2007, Chinese contemporary art was largely the province of European and American collectors who bought on the cheap and watched as prices went up. Now it is more likely to stay in Asia. Taiwan, which has some of the most mature collectors in the region, has recently acquired an appetite for contemporary art. Taiwanese taste, says Pi Li, co-owner of Boers-Li, a Beijing gallery, is “elegant” and leans towards expatriate artists like Yan Pei Ming (who lives in France) and Zhang Huan and Mr Cai (who live in New York), whereas mainland buyers like “wilder things”. Hong Kong, by contrast, is a hybrid culture, where collectors love international art, particularly Pop.
Most Chinese artists live in Beijing, whereas most collectors come from Shanghai, the historic financial centre. The newly rich from Shanxi province (which derives its wealth from mining) and Fujian (which has grown prosperous through trade) have recently entered the market, but their tastes veer towards the traditional, or what Philip Tinari, a Beijing-based art critic, dismisses as “realist pictures of pretty girls playing blackjack”.
One thing Chinese collectors agree on is the superiority of painting. The highest price ever paid for a sculpture by a living mainland Chinese artist is just over $800,000 (for a stainless-steel work by Zhan Wang), less than a tenth of the highest price paid for a Chinese contemporary picture ($10.1m for an early painting by Mr Zhang). “The Chinese tradition doesn’t see sculpture as real art but as anonymous craft for ritual use,” explains Lu Jie, the owner of the Long March Space, another Beijing gallery.
Beijing is the intellectual capital of China and has a burgeoning gallery scene in its art district, which is known as 798. Contemporary dealers set up shop here to stay close to the many artists that have made Beijing their home. The best local galleries—the Long March Space, Beijing Commune and Boers-Li—are artist-driven businesses. A handful of prestigious international players—Continua, Urs Meile, Jens Faurschou and Pace Gallery—have also opened there, but these are mainly exporters. Pace has shown many Chinese artists in its New York galleries but, until recently, no Western art in China. As Arne Glimcher, Pace’s owner, says: “A Chinese audience is not going to be spoon-fed the leftovers of Western culture.”
The artists’ community in Beijing is vibrant and competitive. Some painters and sculptors live in artists’ villages scattered around central Beijing, but many live on the outskirts in Songzhuang, a tolerant municipality where artists without Beijing residence licences or hukouben are not harassed by the police.
Contributing to this vitality is the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). One of two elite institutions (the other is the China Academy of Art located in Hangzhou), the academy admits only one in 30 applicants and has a magnetic pull on ambitious Chinese artists. CAFA used to be the pre-eminent party-controlled school; it now boasts a department of “experimental art” and most staff members lean cautiously toward liberality. Jin Hua, manager of the international office of CAFA, is a rare public supporter of Ai Weiwei. Mr Jin regards the outspoken artist’s recent 81-day imprisonment as extremely unfair and says that excessive government restriction is unsustainable. “If China wants to be the homeland of high-value goods, it has to be a country with freedom,” he says. “How can you develop a brand when you can’t even own your home?”
Many Chinese artists have become known to Westerners through their recognisable signature styles, such as Yue Minjun’s monotonous paintings of pink-faced smiling men. But the popularity of this kind of work seems to be on the wane. By contrast, Mr Zeng, one of China’s most successful living artists, hasn’t become stuck in a single, rigid type of painting. While Mr Zeng’s most coveted works are from his “mask” series, which were made between 1994 and 2004, his self-portraits (pictured above) also fetch high prices at auction and his abstract landscapes sell well on the primary market.
Expert craftsmanship, preferably with an overt display of time-consuming labour on the part of the artist himself, remains a driving force in Chinese contemporary art. Mr Zeng, for example, is adamant that none of his assistants is allowed to pick up a brush.
The way Mr Zeng sells his work is illustrative of a general trend. In the 1990s, Mr Zeng sold most of his paintings directly from his studio. Later he worked with a range of dealers, settling with Shanghart. Now he has signed an exclusive global deal with Larry Gagosian for all sales beyond the mainland.
As Chinese artists come to appreciate the confidence in their work that can be conferred by a strong gallery, they will start seeking integration into the global art world. The endorsement of international collectors with powerful reputations is also essential. For instance, François Pinault, a French collector with two museums in Venice, owns 15 Zeng paintings and says he sees the artist as “the Jackson Pollock of the 21st century”: the great abstract expressionist was the first American painter to gain international recognition. Mr Pinault’s foundation underwrote a solo show of recent Zeng work at Christie’s in Hong Kong and at the new Rockbund Art Museum, part of a commercial property development in Shanghai.
Museums of contemporary art with permanent collections and solid scholarship are the most important ingredient still missing from the Chinese art world. The Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing helped transform the 798 district from a desolate industrial site into a cultural destination, but it lacks the steadfastness expected of a public non-profit-making space. The centre opened in late 2007, but its Belgian benefactor, Guy Ullens, has already sold some of the best works in his collection, and he is now looking to sell off the space itself.
The one museum that could set a new standard is M+, which is due to open in Hong Kong in 2016. Headed by Lars Nittve, a well-respected curator, the project is supported by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Currently, the most professional curatorial institution in Asia is the 21st-century museum of contemporary art in Kanazawa, Japan. M+ could leapfrog Kanazawa and become the Tate Modern of the East. Much like Tate Modern, M+ is looking for collections that need a long-term home.
The most important collector of Chinese contemporary art is Uli Sigg, a businessman and former Swiss ambassador to China. Mr Sigg, who owns 3,000 works and has created the best record of Chinese art history from 1979 to the present, wants to return the art to the region. Securing the Sigg collection would do much to confirm the importance of any new institution.
The Chinese art world is developing quickly. The number of reliable dealers is growing, but the market needs bona fide collectors with the energy to do intelligent research and the commitment to stick to their choices. Buying quality art is rarely a good way to make a quick buck. The true relevance of art reveals itself over time. Good information is the key to success in the art market. In China, a cultural landscape with so few signposts, this knowledge is harder to obtain—but even more essential.
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Food, by He Zubin, 80cm by 80cm, oil on canvas Source: Supplied
CONTEMPORARY Chinese art exploded on to the international scene less than a decade ago.
Celebrity profiles, wild prices, serious collectors and a resulting, equally serious secondary market seemed to come, like all fashions, out of nowhere.
The political, social and artistic conditions had been building, however, and Taree-born Brian Wallace was there from the beginning. He first travelled in China in 1984 and returned to Beijing the next year to pursue language studies. The friends he made were young artists and over the next few years he helped them scrounge spaces for informal exhibitions.
There were no commercial galleries: they would rent a space for a weekend or a week. The Old Summer Palace, a famous bohemian hangout, was a popular venue before the authorities cracked down and threw everyone out. It was a dynamic time.
“These were young people, just out of the academy, living on the fringe around Beijing,” Wallace says. “And everything was raw, everything was new.”
Last year, Wallace celebrated 20 years of his pioneering Beijing gallery, Red Gate. On Monday, an exhibition, titled Two Generations, will open at Sydney Town Hall to mark the anniversary, timed for Chinese new year.
Twenty-eight artists are represented. Wallace asked some of the established names at his gallery to nominate up-and-coming artists they thought should be watched and the result is a survey show, covering the gamut of media, mixing veterans with academy fledglings and some of Red Gate’s own younger artists.
“When we put the idea to the older artists, they were enthusiastic and really took their time thinking about who they were going to nominate,” Wallace says. “They took it really seriously and the quality of the result pleased everyone.”
Wallace arrived in China less than a decade after reformists, led by Deng Xiaoping, had started the process of economic liberalisation at the end of 1978. Dubbed “Reform and Opening” in party style, its aim was to mend the disasters of the Cultural Revolution.
Things were opening up, but in a stop-start fashion. Local authorities still harassed artists and police would regularly raid exhibitions, pulling pictures off the walls.
Political criticism was intermittently allowed in waves of loosening, followed by crackdown. Through it all, Chinese contemporary art was coming of age. An exhibition, now seen as seminal, called China/Avant-Garde, was held at the National Academy of Arts in Beijing in 1989, although the authorities quickly intervened when an artist, Xiao Lu, fired a gun during a performance piece.
But then, also in 1989, came Tiananmen Square. Intellectuals and artists pulled their heads in. Several artists who would go on to big careers left China — some of them, including Guan Wei and Ah Xian, for Australia.
In 1990, Wallace enrolled in an art history course at the Beijing Fine Art Academy to formalise his interests. At the end of it, five years after he had arrived in China, he was wondering what he might do next. Get a job? Go home to Australia? His Australian scholarships had run out. He could find only part-time work.
He decided, perhaps as a stalling measure, to open a Western-style commercial gallery for his artist friends.
In a stroke of luck, he quickly found the perfect venue: the Dongbianmen watchtower, in the heart of downtown Beijing. It was a 600-year-old Ming edifice that had just been restored, all deeply polished log floors and imposing pillars.
Red Gate Gallery, Beijing’s first commercial space, was born. Wallace showed seven artists in his first exhibition in July 1991. One of them, Wang Lifeng, is still with the gallery and will participate in Sydney. That first show was a success — the paintings sold. All the buyers were foreigners. Perhaps it was luck, or the curiosity factor, because there was no market at that stage.
“We persevered,” Wallace says, without a hint of irony. It was five years before another gallery opened, he says, then one opened in Shanghai, and another in Beijing, all run by foreigners. There was no domestic market at all. The Chinese were too poor at first, and even as their economic situation improved, there were other priorities: housing, education for their children. “All of those things came well before putting anything more than a printed poster on the wall,” Wallace says.
The Chinese market has taken off only in the past five years or so, as prosperity skyrocketed and outsiders began to take an interest. Even for traditional art forms such as brush and ink painting, Wallace says, there has only recently been a purchasing, as opposed to a viewing, market.
The domestic market remains deeply conservative: figurative painting generates the most interest. The really big international names — including performance and multimedia artists such as Ai Wei Wei and Cai Guo-Qiang — remain more honoured in the breach. Ai’s treatment at the hands of tax officials last year is notorious.
And yet, Xu Bing, for example — whose large and very beautiful take on power, Book from the Sky, was exhibited at the last Asia-Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery, and who moved to the US in 1990 in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square — has become Chancellor of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.
Thousands of artists now work in the city, including foreigners who come for the atmosphere and the local production skills.
Sculpture and other three-dimensional works can be made “very well, very quickly, at a much lower cost than back home”, Wallace says.
The famous 798 art zone, housed in a decommissioned military complex in Dashanzi, in the Chaoyong district of Beijing, is exemplary. It has morphed as rapidly as the Chinese art scene has.
“The artists moved in, the artists moved out, the galleries moved in, now the galleries are moving out,” Wallace says.
“The management really doesn’t care who pays the rent.”
In the early 2000s, peripatetic artists, always looking for cheap spaces, began to congregate there. It became seriously cool.
“These days it’s the third most popular tourist destination in Beijing,” Wallace says.
“For young people in Beijing, it’s a wonderful bohemian environment, full of coffee shops and bars and restaurants, and you can buy stuff off the pavement, you can buy knick-knacks, all of that.
“But one of my friends who owns a gallery there said a couple of months ago, ‘Well, I had a thousand (visitors) and not one of them looked at the art’.”
Many top-end galleries have now moved out to Caochangdi, where Ai Wei Wei first established his compound in 1999.
Wallace opened a satellite gallery in the 798 zone in 2006. Red Gate Gallery was situated well away from other galleries and he wanted the company.
“It was a happening place and we wanted to be there as well,” he says now.
Then came 2008 and financial disaster. Business slowed, even as rents were spiralling.
“We just walked and consolidated everything back into the main place,” Wallace says.
“It was an important decision and quite a few other galleries did the same thing.”
The financial crisis caused only a pause in the Beijing art market. “You can see it taking off again, but in a more controlled or measured way,” Wallace says.
Meanwhile the art infrastructure continues to flourish.
There is now a busy calendar of art fairs, auctions, biennales, triennials, festivals and competitions.
Curators from around the world cruise through regularly and foreign artists can get breaks they may not have got in the backwaters they came from.
Private museums of contemporary art have sprung up, such as the interesting Today museum, which opened in 2001, and the Ullens Centre for Contemporary art, set up by Belgian collector Guy Ullens in 2007.
The gallery scene, too, is maturing, Wallace says, running more sophisticated programs, including residencies and lecture series.
“And then you still have all these artists on the fringe of Beijing, doing wonderful work and organising outside the system, so it still is a very exciting place,” he says.
Two Generations will be at the Sydney Town Hall from January 17-28.
Chen Wei, Waiting a bird to wake up, 2011, mixed media, dimension variable
These two exhibitions dismantle this fixed impression of Chinese contemporary art. In these exhibitions, China still remains as an unidentifiable country. However, these exhibitions also prove the potential of China as a country that can flexibly supply products for any kind of demand. The artworks in these exhibitions represent ideas ranging from extremely delicate and aesthetic dimensions to a self-consciousness about the violent history of imposed changes. Also these artworks reflect, on a microscopic as well as macroscopic level, the on-going changes in China that made it one of the two giants along with United States, after the fall of other socialist states. By looking at Chinese modern art from various angles, the exhibitions let us know that the artist is the most convincing witness of this age.
By, or against their own will, artists, who have to be the most individual beings, have hypersensitively responded toward totalitarian culture. After the new China was established in the mid 20th century, there was a history of violence and oppression on the other side of the dazzling growth, as it became a rival to Western capitalism. A system that opposes an imaginary or real enemy, needs to strongly crackdown on domestic opposition in order to seize hegemonic control from the external opposition. Whether the state has a credible cause like revolution or for the purposes of enlightenment with a bright vision, an argument based against the opposition is a similar idea to making the enemy into the opposition. In the midst of the conflict with capitalism, Chinese socialism became a capitalist system not be led by the economy but by the state. At here the nation monopolize the capital and even the violence. Not just the reform policy of the Chinese government, but also its role as the world’s workshop in the global market has brought tremendous upheaval to both domestic and foreign policy, revealing the contradiction of capital as being the same as that of Western imperialism.
Beyond Contradiction of Modernity
Reflecting the spirit of the times, the artworks in these two exhibitions share subtleties with the modernization of Chinese society, as they are modern art. In this case, modernity has two faces that developed out of destruction. The equivocal form that not so much as capitalism or socialism has made them stood out both strength and weakness. The contradiction of capitalism like the gap between rich and poor in a classed society meets inefficiency, authoritarianism, and corruption, so social conflicts cannot be hidden but are instead used to create violent effects. Good examples of this can be seen in the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen Square Massacre. The anxiety and the fear of the change that appears frequently in Chinese modern art reflects the history of the one party system that has tried to conceal the actual violence it has perpetrated as well as the history of coercion suffered by many people. But this severe contradiction in Chinese society and the conflict it enacts prompts artists as the others of society and has therefore, paradoxically, become a fertile ground of content for art making. So, from the diverse possibility of art making itself, which has antagonized and acted against the system, we can identify the capability of the Chinaese people and its true identities.
The Chinese contemporary video works shown in Revolving Stage, at Arario Gallery, are the proper medium to capture the accelerated flow of the time in the Modern era. Yet the exhibition’s title Revolving Stage and the repetitive character of video art change the stairway step-like linearity into a place of eternal recurrences. These works must have been started with an aim towards liberation, but ultimately became a place not only for the contradiction of enlightenment that the oppressing propaganda art illuminated, but also the retrogression towards commercial trends that intensified after their first appearance in the 1990s. Sun Xun’s work, seen immediately upon entering the first floor, is a video made by the woodblock print, which was a long tradition and also modified and adopted for a right use during the Cultural Revolution. With unique strong lines and contrast of the colors of the woodblock prints, leaping between the cuts, is so rough as an animation that we may feel seasick at the drastic changes in the portrayed history. With the strong contrast of black and white and the intensity of sudden changes, the video shows a distance from the water-stream-like natural time flow. As well, in the work of Wang Jianwei, placed at the entrance of the second floor, there is a feeling of chaos on the stage of history. Each of the main characters in this video occupy uproarious stages, in a market fair, wearing traditional, modern and contemporary costumes. In the last part, they all mixed together on one stage. The ideology of the modern paradigm, like progress or development, cannot make things of past disappear completely. The staged scenes the artist directed were already a spectacle, yet he later modified these in the editing to create an even greater sense of chaos and vibrancy, in order to show these mixed realities coexisting.
Wu Junyong’s animation, which depicts nine round moons floating in space, is made from ink-and-wash paintings, and was inspired by a line from a poem about the Buddhist utopia in Sung dynasty. Compared to the long history of China, the modern concept of utopia is blind and imposed as the most severe of changes, which this work compares by decentering it with multiple loci. Another artist Wang Gongxin records the changing process of pigments sprayed on body parts. What is aesthetically appealing here is the interaction between the body as a living organism combined with the refined inorganic substance. It is reminiscent of death as the fragmented body assumes the shape of the inorganic substance. The video repeats a time flow that shows the relationship of death to living on a microscopic dimension. On a screen, slow and calm like an art film, with an unclear narrative, Jiang Pengyi’s work suggests a different pattern of life that tends not to cross the law of nature. It is a return to the value, which was there in each and every bit of tradition, but has been forgotten by due to the abusive qualities of modernization, so Pengyi’s return itself is consistent with modern media, which can handle picturesque scenery or a nature show effectively. The change has been always there, but in the modern era the uncertainty of it has risen as expectation rather than experience, in other words the portion of future is rapidly grown than the past. (Reinhart Koselleck) The uncertainty of the modern era does not originated from chaos but from systematization. Systems, regardless of left or right, or even more when the two oppose each other, operates more as unified force. Here it is clear the new media artists of China are responding to this hostile force.
Wang Jianwei, Gaze, 2009, single channel video, 13min 25sec
Art, Reflection of Uncertainty
The artworks in New Contemporary Art from China show the intense wave of change to Chinese society are not a variable any more, but a constant. These changes, like them or not, right or wrong, have become a standing condition of living, so people just have learned how to live with them. Another characteristic of our time, is that the present is regarded as a transition period. Contemporary artists mix the uncertainty derived from the system with the internal workings of art making. The impact is internalized which then reverberates through varied formal devices. Upon entering the exhibition, Li Hui’s laser installation is just inside, with its red lights pouring into the space, symbolizing the dynamic changes in China. The numerous sacrifices made by the Chinese people that created dark shadows upon Chinese modern history, are reflected the flow of the red lights, which then are reminiscent of both energy and death. This cosmic human epic is also the subject of Miao Xiaochun’s animation. Miao expresses the multiple timelines coexisting in modern China, by using the icons of the Western art history. While the circle of time repeats, its cycles leads us to an unknown world, yet in Miao’s work he revives human history in a compressed form by showing the endless creation and extinction in the context of Chinese history. On Wang Wei’s shining propaganda pavilion, largely occupying the width of the room, he has grafted the past onto the present of China. Both physical and psychological, Wang’s structure obstinately takes up space in the present, but eventually it too will fail the test of time. Wang’s mixed monument of traditional architecture and political propaganda is a paradoxical historic monument that paradoxixally betrays the very thing that it memorializes.
The work of Xu Bing looks like vintage calligraphy, but is made up of signs that cannot be read. Xu seems to follow a traditional style, but there is a contemporary aesthetic in his piece that puts signified and signifier in parentheses, while experimenting with the structural elements of language. In this formulation the structure generates the meaning. In contrast, Yuan Yuan arranged sparkling youths as though they just stepped out of a fashion magazine into a bubble shaped structure. The structure itself is similar to a space where merchandize is arranged. At a glance, the colorful consumer society brought about by the open economic reforms seems far away from the dreary authoritarianism of the past, but is really equivalent in that consumer society is a voluntarily agreed upon totalitarianism. The sketches of daily life by Wen Ling have the light touch of a comicbook. Different from ordinary artists, Wen says often he indulges in publishing comic books, Internet community and social media, which can be an entry point for the capitalist consumption, but also a powerful influence in transforming a closed authoritarian society. The media Wen indulges in have potentials to disperse power from the party and the nation to citizens and society. In Song Yige’s painting the modern ego is shown as having the frailty of the naked life on a flat background which is a space of confinement or fear. The bird or angel, which Chen Wei installed in a dark space can neither step on the ground nor fly up to the sky, but instead merely floats. Maybe it has been hanging there for a long time in between the lucent spiritual world and the material world’s gravity. This omnipotent being who could once cross many universes, now elegiacally looks down at the one-dimensional world, which is buried under materiality, the only value.
Since the end of the 1970s, Chinese contemporary art has always been entangled with the western art.
Robert Rauschenberg Works
Since the end of the 1970s, Chinese contemporary art has always been entangled with the western art. In fact, this entanglement started when China began to modernize under the western influence. In this condition, the intellectuals’ attitude towards the local culture swings back and forth between conceit and inferiority, similarly, the attitude towards western changes between admiration and resistance. During the Fine Art New Tide in 1985 when China began to be open to the world after the culture shortage, Chinese people were eager to cure the “disease” with the help of western culture. Therefore, it is evident that Chinese contemporary culture followed the western as an example. Here is a case in point. After the Robert Rauschenberg Exhibition hold in China, many followers appear in China. Though this kind of imitation is immature; it is still an indispensable step in the growth of the Chinese contemporary art. In addition, faced with various western cultural resources, Chinese contemporary artists chose to imitate. The imitation with individual and local experience indicates that the imitation is based on the demand of the local culture. Meanwhile, it is undeniable that there are accidental and blind imitations. Just as what Shang Yang told to me, “Someone came across an idea in a book and felt greatly inspired to practice it and make speeches according to it, thus, others followed and imitate him to create a theory in China. There is a phenomenon from 1980’s to now.” “Actually, it is accidental. If the book is not picked up or translated, it is impossible for the idea in it to develop in China. For instance, a large number of people follow the style of Freud Lucian. What’s more, a common painter, was the most popular one in China and had a great influence on the Chinese art. It is ridiculous.”
In the entanglement of imitation and alienation, as well as admiration and resistance, Chinese contemporary art in 1990s saw the post-colonialism market. Then, a sharp and serious problem arose: which way we should choose to go, returning to the local culture and facing the rigid ideology, strict control and sluggish market, or producing paintings in large quantities to meet the demand of the western post-colonialism. The Chinese overseas artists, on one hand, had no choice but to accept the inferior situation, on the other hand, they tried hard to take advantage of the cultural background and resolve the problem in the perspective of the local culture and on the basis of the local resources (Huang Yangli defined this way as Using Eastern Culture to Win Western Culture). Chinese contemporary art distinguished itself rapidly and degraded itself ideologically so that it is far from resolving the problems of the local culture. Its pioneering quality is fading gradually. At present, indulging in culture thievery is evident and serious. The reason why people feel puzzled about the definition and orientation of art lies in the value of the artists.
Since 2005, a large amount of capital was put into the Chinese contemporary art market. The Chinese contemporary art, once a borderline category, became popular so rapidly that the old artists who are busy to summarize the victory still have doubts and puzzles. First, we have to admit that the Chinese contemporary artists are pride of self-control. The fact that Chinese contemporary art can draw so much attention is closely related to the economic and political development of China. Second, the sudden prosperity of the Chinese contemporary art market has something to do with the non-academic tendency, such as the current financial policy. Third, the price of the contemporary works is soaring. However, the art value is not table. Some people buy the works with the intention of seeking profit by short-term investment instead of collecting. The buyers use a series of propaganda activities to increase the price and then sell them. Nobody wants to be the final owner of the works of the highest price. Because they will lose every cent they invested if the market collapses. Finally, with the increasing of the price, artists become more and more confident. And the western culture which was the model is ignored and despised. Actually, there is no direct relation between the academic value and the market value. If artists can gain confidence because of the price increase, they also can lose it because of the price decrease. It is the truth that the works with the highest price were the ones with a strong sense of post-colonialism created in 1990s. The value of the mainstream of the Chinese contemporary art is not high.
Generally, it is self evident that academic value is more important than market value. Capital investment in the Chinese contemporary art market has its advantages. In the current situation of China, it can help the Chinese contemporary art to free from the authoritative ideology. With the capital assistant, the Chinese contemporary art with the foundations and galleries can gain its academic value. But the current situation is worrisome, because the Chinese contemporary art is entangled with profit. The different categorization is originated from the problem of the independence of the Chinese contemporary art which is the main problem that artists face. Faced with the temptation of fame, many people can not stick to his belief. However, it is the serious problems of the local environment that the Chinese contemporary artists should face. Artists shouldn’t do some vulgar things in the name of contemporary art.
China’s Artistic Diaspora
For sixty years, upheavals in Chinese politics have not only remade the country’s economy–they have remade Chinese art
Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky(1987-1991), hand printed books, ceiling and wall scrolls printed from wood letterpress type using false Chinese characters, dimensions variable, installation view at “Crossings,” National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (1998). (Courtesy Xu Bing Studio)
Xu Bing’s sunny art studio in Brooklyn, with spacious ceiling-to-floor windows and reassuring domestic touches—including a purple plastic slide in one corner for his seven-year-old daughter—is worlds away from the desolate labor camp where he toiled as a teenager during China’s Cultural Revolution. Yet, as the 52-year-old artist told me when I visited his studio earlier this year, the tensions and turmoil of recent Chinese history continue to fuel his artwork.
Like many artists and intellectuals of his generation,Xu left China shortly after the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. After moving to the United States in 1990, he began to explore the theme of“living between cultures,” as he puts it. One of his first stateside exhibits showcased his invention of something called “New English Calligraphy,” an elaborate system of writing that fuses the linguistic and visual conventions of Mandarin and English. In 1999, he won a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, which firmly established his standing in the international art world.
Throughout history, periods of religious and political repression have provoked an exodus of creative and entrepreneurial talent from various countries—from 17th century Huguenots fleeing France (after the king revoked religious freedoms), to 20th century Russian writers evading the Kremlin, to Jewish intellectuals escaping Nazi Germany. Likewise, many prominent Chinese artists and intellectuals who came of age during the Cultural Revolution later left China to garner fame and fortune abroad. Artists such as Xu Bing constitute what Melissa Chiu, the Museum Director of the Asia Society in New York, refers to today as “the Chinese artistic diaspora.”
For sixty years, upheavals in Chinese politics have not only remade the country’s economy—they have remade Chinese art. During the Mao era, Soviet-inspired “socialist realism” was the only acceptable style in the strictly controlled authoritarian society. However, in 1979 Deng Xiaoping’s monumental economic reforms also paved the way for the emergence of contemporary Chinese art. Over the next decade, Chinese artists had much greater access to international news and scholarship, allowing them to take inspiration from a panoply of global art movements.
The 1980s saw the advent of Chinese versions—and subversions—of everything from Renaissance portraiture to Andy Warhol-esque pop art to Dada philosophy. In the city of Xiamen, for instance, painters burned their canvases after exhibitions to enact “creative destruction.” In this period, Xu became active in Beijing’s new bohemian art scene. As he told me, “Like someone who was starving, suddenly we feasted—we ate everything, at once, almost until we were sick. It was a very experimental time.”
After this period of relative openness, 1989 marked a turning point. Following the crackdown in Tiananmen Square, state-run museums imposed new restrictions on free speech and public art exhibitions. Subsequently, many avant-garde artists and curators left China to form new creative communities abroad, particularly in Sydney, Paris, and New York. In the United States and elsewhere, legislation in the wake of the massacre made it easier for Chinese citizens to obtain refugee status and work abroad.
But the fact of geographical separation did not constitute psychological detachment for most artists. In fact, something like the reverse occurred. While living overseas, many actually felt a heightened need to define and distill “essential Chinese identity” through their art. For a plurality of diaspora artists, “historical and cultural references to China are more overt in their work today than when [they] lived in Beijing,” observes the Asia Society’s Chiu.
In New York, a fifteen-minute drive from Xu Bing’s workspace is the studio of another prominent Chinese artist, Zhang Hongtu. Zhang moved to the United States in 1982, deeply disillusioned with the propagandist art of the Cultural Revolution. Initially he hoped that living abroad would allow him to “avoid mixing politics and art.” (“I wanted only to paint things because they were beautiful,” he told me, “not to have a message.”) However, the Tiananmen crackdown touched a nerve, and Zhang’s international reputation gave him a platform not available to artists inside China. During the 1990s, he completed a series of politically charged portraits of Chairman Mao—including a famous painting of Mao sporting Stalin’s mustache, and another in which Mao is depicted with Cubist multiple faces.
Today another era in contemporary Chinese art is beginning. After two decades in which artists primarily left China, the Middle Kingdom is starting to exert a greater gravitational pull. In recent years, Beijing has stopped enforcing some restrictions on public art displays, and a growing number of regional governments now see creative industries as potential economic engines. The government of Shanghai, for example, recently gave avante-garde artist Cai Guo-Qiang the opportunity to do something impossible in virtually any other major metropolis—to stage a massive pyrotechnics display on the downtown waterfront—for the purpose of impressing visitors to that year’s APEC summit.
International galleries, meanwhile, are now deliberately showcasing the work of more artists who reside inside China. In February, the Chinese Contemporary Art Gallery in Manhattan hosted an exhibit opening for Tu Hongtao, a 31-year-old painter from southwest China. When Tu explained his work to prospective collectors, he didn’t talk about politics, but instead about the cultural ramifications of how “China’s cities are growing so quickly.” (Pointing to one painting of a woman lying on a steel-frame bed in a vast snowy landscape, he said, “I try to understand how we can find ourselves inside the city, and outside the city.”) The gallery’s director, Ludovic Bois, refers to younger Chinese artists interpreting the country’s current social and economic upheavals as members of the “cartoon and chaos generation.”
Indeed, the exhilarating pace of cultural combustion in modern China is even luring some diaspora artists back home. In January, Xu Bing accepted a post as a vice president of his alma mater, the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Although he will still maintain a studio in New York, he says he will now spend the majority of his time in China. Reflecting on his time abroad he told me, “I’ve been able to do things outside China that I couldn’t have otherwise done,” but now it is time “to return to Chinese soil … that is where the energy is, where history is happening. There are so many multiple cultural layers—it is something really new.”
1 This article is based on Emmanuel Lincot Culture, identité et réformes politiques : la peinture en (…)
1Studying contemporary art in China is not an exclusively aesthetic choice. In the context of an emerging market, art is as much a matter of cultural economy as of socio-politics. Thus art is not the product of an independent condition. In its imagination, as well as in its own diversity and its transformations, it encompasses and summarises the changes of a culture which is appropriating the schemes, images and notions inherited both from an age-old tradition and from the West (a West which is sometimes in close proximity, as in the case of Muslim Central Asia or Buddhist India). Artists reinterpret the original meaning in order to arrive at a proclamation of their own difference, which is usually held up as cultural nationalism. In order to understand the evolution of contemporary Chinese art, we will examine some salient facts of artistic life in the country, which was profoundly changed by the reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping. These changes have not stopped uniting or dividing the Chinese cultural scene in its relations with a government engaged in a constant search for legitimacy, the guarantor of order, and of an orthodoxy which has been shaken by the economic opening up of the country and by globalisation 1.
2 Cf. Julia F. Andrews, Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China (1949-1979), Berkeley (…)
2Art in China since 1979 and the first reforms, is a space where two major aspects of Chinese history at the end of the twentieth century intersect, under the two-fold aegis of political orthodoxy and of a multifarious culture (duoyuan wenhua), which oscillates constantly between the endogenous and the exogenous, between native traditions and imported cultural practices, while calling into question the aesthetic criteria of what is called the socialist-realist period 2. This enormous and tumultuous mixing, often linked to acute political crises, lies at the source of a huge iconography which exercises its power over successive generations, and reveals itself as the arena of intense rivalries where the most diverse temporalities clash. One cannot understand, in hindsight, either the emergence of a political and reactionary pop art (the critique of mass consumption, the ironic and playful extolling of Maoism…) or the popularity of kitsch, without taking into account the irresistible infatuation, in China, with enchantment (qiguan), the post-revolutionary sentimentality. This is, by definition, one of the most anecdotal aspects, and thus the most dated, of a period marked by a sudden acceleration of history. An art of transition, kitsch in its Chinese version, marks the beginning of a concensus established between the government and public opinion about the value of money. Thus art, which was essentially, in China, that of painting and calligraphy, has become a plural phenomenon: there is not art, but arts.
3 Hung Wu, Exhibiting Experimental Art in China, Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 2000.
3The first national and avant-gardist retrospective, China/Avant-garde (Zhongguo xiandai yishu zhan), which took place at the Peking Palace of Fine Arts in 1989 3, constituted a precursory event. The artistic community, on the eve of the repression of the Tian’anmen movement, gave meaning, its own meaning, to ten years placed under the sign of a self-proclaimed avant-gardism, which the successor generation was to recognise only in order to distance itself from it more effectively, thus laying claim to a total break from it and the gap between it and the traditional world of art, and in particular that of painting. The values of painting—linked to those of the scholar and the age-old myth of state culture—on which rest the framework of debate and political choice lead to the definition of new frontiers. While information—which was scattered from the 1980s onwards—and the transformation of Chinese society do not allow the historian to envisage, for the moment, an all-encompassing analysis, covering all the events which were part of the new languages of art, it does seem possible, however, to focus on the exhibitions and the new artistic professions which created the new face of a society seeking to legitimise both its Chinese identity and its contacts with the outside world.
Peking, 1989. China/Avant-garde (Nu U-Turn).
In Hung Wu, Exhibiting Experimental Art in China, op. cit., p. 16
4 On these artists, and the period concerned, a number of journals and books in Chinese are available (…)
41989 was the year of a failed revolution. It was also that of a successful aesthetic putsch, with the exhibition China/Avant-garde which opened on February 5th and brought together 293 paintings, sculptures and videos by 186 artists—among them Wang Guangyi, Xu Bing, Wu Shanzhuan, Huang Yongping and Gu Wenda 4.
5The event was prepared for a long time, within the framework of so-called “modern Chinese art” (Dangdai yishu yantaohui) convention, whose principles were established in November of the previous year in Tunxi in the province of Anhui. This exhibition was the result of a collaboration between three art critics: Gao Minglu, Peng De, and Li Xianting. Gao Minglu, who now teaches in the United States, was the editor at the time of the magazine Meishu. Peng De, Vice-President of the Hubei Artists’ Research Institute, edited the most independent art magazine Meishu sichao, which was published in Wuhan until it was definitively censored from 1987 onwards. Li Xianting is attached to the Art Research Institute of Peking. Co-founder and editor of Zhongguo meishubao until his resignation in 1989, he remains one of the most influential critics in China.
6China/Avant-garde did not show the public any traditional Chinese painting (guohua, literally: national painting) or calligraphy. The exhibition expertly summed up the climate of tension which, for several years, had constantly divided the art scene. China/Avant-garde was the first national exhibition of experimental art (shiyan meishu). This is the name given to any exhibition which allows the works to produce their effect on their own, eliminating any rooting (of the work, of the criticism, of the institution) in a cult. China/Avant-garde was precisely a challenge placed in opposition to any form of cult. The event was marked by a performance by Tang Song and Xiao Lu: shots were fired at point-blank range on their installation, a telephone booth ironically entitled “duihua” (Dialogue). The organisers aimed, at those who were willing to see, tangible signs of the break between the moment of the exhibition and the public, using streamers stamped with the label “No U-Turn”.
7This mode of artistic expression was to become predominant during the following decade. The exhibition of experimental art goes against the repressive state (an expression equivalent to a pleonasm in the case of China, which has never been a liberal state). The clash between these two entities which are opposed in every way (an abstract organisation versus a concrete manifestation) could only be head-on. China/Avant-garde was censored. The event preceded the repression of the Tian’anmen Square demonstrators, which took place three months later.
5 Cf. Kraus Richard Curt, Brushes with Power: Modern Politics and the Chinese Art of Calligraphy, Ber (…)
6 Francis A. Yates, L’Art de la mémoire, Paris, Gallimard, 1975.
8If we consider that an art as overwhelmingly cult-bound as painting—and its corollary, the veneration of an image which corresponds as much to that of the scholar as to the culture of which he is the guardian—was suddenly made available to all, one can understand that, in parallel with museum exhibition, the Chinese visual arts went into crisis (weiji). This crisis in art—and in particular in painting and calligraphy, which are considered, in China, to be at the summit of the hierarchy of aesthetic and social values 5—consisted in fact in the invention of it. Where before there had been no art in the strict meaning of the word, but an object of or for worship, from then on there was art, because a question had been asked about the gesture that founds it. Each exhibition of contemporary art reinvents art by asking again the question of art, of its boundaries, and, a novelty in China, of memorisation, or of what Francis A. Yates, in a completely different context, called the art of memory, emphasising the value and the anamnestic role of history 6. It took the transformation of an ancient religious art into an exhibition art, before the question of what was religious in it—its aura—could at last be asked.
9The exhibition, as place, as work, and as event, has since become a space for the transformation of the traditional categories in the domain of the visual arts. As happened in the United States and in Europe almost forty years ago, the frame, both literally and figuratively, is being shattered before our eyes, shaking up the elements of a visual language which, in the past, had assigned to the visual arts (calligraphy and painting) and to their supports (the guohua scroll, the stretcher for oil on canvas) their specificities in terms of domain: materials, hanging, places of exhibition, modalities of diffusion borrowed from Western practices. It is the work which, as is the artists’ wish, leads very directly to the questioning of its exhibition, and more generally questions the role of exhibition.
10In the wake of these upheavals and the profusion of experimentation, a growing number of artists abandoned the base, the frame and the scroll; the wall, the table (the conventional support for the Reading—nian—of a calligraphy or of a shanshui) were no longer pre-eminent for the presentation of works, and many of them now occupied the floor or the ceiling. The archetype of the museum, an inheritance from nineteenth century Europe and before that from the early curiosity rooms of the Renaissance, with its cultural and political implications, as well as in its very architectural configuration, was disputed; artists like Zhang Dali or Rong Rong turned to the ruins of the workers’ housing estates, the disused industrial sites, an urban space which had been disrupted and which itself simultaneously disrupted the choice of exhibition venues.
Rong Rong, photograph, untitled.
In Emmanuel Lincot, L’Invitation à la Chine, op. cit.
7 China’s New Art, Post-1989, organised by the Hong Kong gallery Hanart TZ, 1993.
11The exhibitions of experimental art in the People’s Republic were discovered by art professionals from the West, Taiwan or Hong Kong at the beginning of the 1990s. The success of the international exhibition China’s New Art, post-1989, organised by the Hong Kong gallery Hanart TZ 7, and the considerable attention attracted by the first participation of young Chinese artists in the 1993 Venice Biennale, as well as the publication of articles in Flash Art and The New York Times Magazine, explain the growing interest of the foreign media in the Chinese art scene, as well as the enormous prestige which artists acquired by becoming, sometimes against their will, the flag-bearers of their country.
12Exhibition venues diversified. They tended to oppose the persistent collusion between state interests and the members of the juries, which is rarely propitious to the development of original creation. After 1989, exhibitions retreated from the art galleries and the commercial spaces, sometimes to spaces in private houses or in diplomatic compounds. Beginning in 1993, the galleries affiliated to institutions, such as those of the Teacher Training College or the Central Fine Arts Academy, became major sites of experimental exhibition in Peking, mainly because of the open-mindedness shown by the directors of these establishments. These were not, however, isolated examples. Thus, Guo Shirui, director of the very official Contemporary Art Centre in Peking, began, in 1994, to organise a series of highly important artistic events. With time it became clear that these galleries and the art world in general were subject to the play of competition and to a strategy of modulable discourse which sought to transcend the constraints of government censorship and to seek public and private subsidy. This competition was at the source of the development of a contemporary art market which began with the first Canton Biennale (in October 1992). Then came Shanghai (1996), the stakes of which, on the world art scene, were upped by the French art critic Pierre Restany when he presided over the event four years later.
13At the heart of this decision-making process was the author, at one and the same time set designer, director, interpreter and creator of the exhibition, which was conceived as a work of art where the artist, the organiser and the public met; the events became a performance. The word recalls the variety of meanings, the differentiation and the multiple temporalisation of social phenomena. The performance and its objects refer us as much to the subject as to the venue, which is to be considered as a site where the work is made, is consulted, is even booed at, and never ceases to build and rebuild itself. The fact that the work and the exhibition were constantly evolving gave the organisers a variety of ways to circumvent the constraints of censorship, for example by transferring their exhibition from China to one or several foreign countries. It was in the microworld of the experimental exhibition that were developed the newest ideas and the most powerful images, which were less and less often those of painting. The government’s reluctance to facilitate these artistic events was all the more understandable in that they perturbed political arrangements and age-old cultural codes. Censorship or self-censorship leading to the cancellation of an event, constituted the symptomatic realities of a culture held in an ideological yoke which continued to exercise a fearsome constraint in the era of Deng Xiaoping.
14However the real revolution in Chinese contemporary art was to be found in its integration into the logic of the market, which the national economy as a whole was then tending to embrace. This evolution was accompanied by the emergence of new socio-political categories, centred on the individual and situated on the frontier between the professions of information, of art and of politics.
Ai Weiwei, Spider table.
In Emmanuel Lincot, Avant-gardes (Xianfeng yishu), op. cit.
15A new profession appeared: that of critic-dealer or cultural mediator (in English “independent curator”; in Chinese “duli cezhanren”). The cultural mediator is a freelance professional who combines several functions. He is the obligatory intermediary between the Ministry of Culture, its éminences grises, the exhibition commissioner, the artists, the public, and the potential consumers. He “manufactures” opinion, describes current trends, travels, and negotiates between the parties concerned, in particular with the collector who, by means of his financial assets and social position—he is often a diplomat or an industrialist—spreads rumours, destroys reputations, drapes himself in the prestigious role of patron, of defender—on occasion—of human rights, of freedom of expression in a country where, it is true, society does not much appreciate independence or the right to be different.
16The major factor in this evolution of the art scene was the appearance of selective events, in the form of performances or of exhibitions in private spaces, which tended to vary their participants and their venues without it being necessary to obtain, in a systematic way, the permission of the authorities. As this trend developed, not without coming up against real reservations (sometimes on the part of the artists themselves who preferred, for career strategies, the exclusive recognition of official circles), the field of artistic experimentation broke up into very diverse groups (in the 1980s) and then into individuals (after 1989) on the edges of the system, which increased their dependence on critics, dealers, and on a range of opinion, which was no longer restricted to the conurbations of Peking and Shanghai. Willingly or not, they were integrated into a micro-society where imagination met the internationalist economy. Virtual processes like the Internet, and other communication media, sometimes had the effect of shifting the attention of the critics and of the public onto the identitarian and even the nationalistic specificity of both the work and its producer.
17There were many examples of brilliant artistic careers. These successes were undoubtedly linked to the utilisation of the new communication media, which the artists of the new generation ingeniously turned to their advantage. The most remarkable archetype of this new kind of artist was the Pekingese Ai Weiwei. Artist, dealer, gallery owner, collector, publisher, he embodied to an extent previously unequalled, the most diverse functions which correspond to the key axioms of art communication, then still in its infancy. His way of working and his libertarian attitude made him an artist of a new kind, on the frontiers between the art world, assumed poetic dissidence, commercial opportunism, and scholarly aristocracy. As the son of the poet Ai Qing, a supporter of the regime, his pedigree opened the doors to a broad social recognition. He chose to attend the Film Institute which reopened in 1979, having been closed because of the Cultural Revolution. But neither the cinema nor China could hold the young Ai Weiwei, and after joining the Xing Xing group, he opted for expatriation in New York. There, he attended the Parsons School of Design, traded in antiques for a living, and frequented both the museums and the underground, as well as one of his mentors, William Burroughs. His reference in art was and has remained Marcel Duchamp: a choice which is symptomatic of a generation which finds its marks not in a formalist debate, but rather in the distinction between the sphere of art and of aesthetics.
18In relation to this model, the journey of a work to its presumed consumer is no longer linear but forms a loop; in this it resembles a practice which existed in scholarly circles in the China of the old school. The scholar, as both man of action and man of letters, was a cultural mediator as well as an essential conveyor of the production and transmission of knowledge. For Ai Weiwei’s generation, however, which stands halfway between a claim to modernity and the disenchanted ideal of the scholar-peasant which Mao Zedong embodied in the iconoclastic and revolutionary mode, the path to follow is that of consumerism and, springing from this, of the inauthenticity of works of art and their reducibility to the level of language (whether that of advertising, of the classical, of the universal or the cryptic) becoming the driving force of a reality which needs to be reinterpreted. The artist broke new ground when he suggested to the collectors and dealers Hans Van Dick and Frank Uytterhaegen that they set up a foundation in Peking, The China Modern Art Foundation, of which he is now co-director. This venue exhibits his own works (paintings, installations and sculptures), and functions as a venture in social advancement, in keeping with the nature and ambition of artistic marketing on an international scale between Peking and New York.
8 A number of exhibition catalogues have been published in the West which make it possible to become (…)
19The novelty in China was not the marketing of works of art—which is doubtless as old as the invention of collecting―but rather their integration in the international art market. The craze for contemporary Chinese art was in keeping with a media movement with strong exotic inclinations which first began in eastern Europe, before and especially just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and which continues to this day. At first it was private initiatives, on the part of art lovers such as the Swiss ambassador Uli Sigg, which attracted the attention of the media. Then various governments organised, with some difficulty, major retrospectives in Europe, in Australia, in the United States and in Japan. There were few galleries in China until the early 1990s—except for those established in Hong Kong. The reason for this was the endless harassment and administrative threats faced by the owners of these spaces (which were moreover much coveted by artists), most of whom were of foreign origin. These galleries, mostly situated in Peking and Shanghai, nevertheless had a considerable impact, for they set the prices of works of art for those who aspired to an international career 8.
20The critics often reported a perversion of the art school system and the increasing unease of the public, who assessed the works only in terms of the market speculation to which they were then subjected. This unease encouraged the authorities to adapt the art school system to the norms created by the market. Structural reforms as well as the overhaul of the training courses for students (including work experience in advertising agencies or abroad) opened up the art schools to new possibilities. The overhauling of the art schools in China (the merging of several academies, the creation of galleries with joint public and private funds), which came into effect only after the death of Deng Xiaoping, called fundamentally into question one of the canonical principles, once defined at Yan’an: art only in the service of the people.
21The deep unease felt by a large number of artists and intellectuals in China in the face of this upheaval, is better explained by the fact that the last twenty years produced an extraordinary confusion in people’s work and in their minds; the egalitarian and communist philosophies were succeeded by nationalistic and even xenophobic ideas of resistance to “spiritual pollution”. And yet Deng Xiaoping’s China was no longer, if indeed it had ever been, a cultural loner. It followed and accompanied globalisation, and, at the same time, offered resistance by the reinterpretation of a living tradition which was its own, while fundamentally calling into question the structures of the art world inherited from the Maoist period.
1 This article is based on Emmanuel Lincot Culture, identité et réformes politiques : la peinture en République populaire de Chine (1979-1997), doctoral thesis in process of publication, University of Paris VII, 2003.
2Cf. Julia F. Andrews, Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China (1949-1979), Berkeley, University of California Press, 1994, and Ellen Jonston Laing, The Winking Owl: Art in the People’s Republic of China, Berkeley, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1988.
3 Hung Wu, Exhibiting Experimental Art in China, Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 2000.
4 On these artists, and the period concerned, a number of journals and books in Chinese are available. We should mention in particular the book by Lu Peng and Yi Dan, Zhongguo xiandai yishu shi (1979-1989) (A History of Contemporary Chinese Art [1979-1989]), Changsha, Hunan meishu chubanshe, 1992. A journal offers a trilingual presentation (in French, Chinese and English) of these artists: Emmanuel Lincot, Avant-gardes (Xianfeng yishu), published with the assistance of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Peking, 1997.
5Cf. Kraus Richard Curt, Brushes with Power: Modern Politics and the Chinese Art of Calligraphy, Berkeley, University of California, 1991; James Cahill, The Painter’s Practice. How Artists Lived and Worked in Traditional China, New York, Columbia University, 1994.
6 Francis A. Yates, L’Art de la mémoire, Paris, Gallimard, 1975.
7China’s New Art, Post-1989, organised by the Hong Kong gallery Hanart TZ, 1993.
8 A number of exhibition catalogues have been published in the West which make it possible to become more familiar with the work of some artists. In particular: Emmanuel Lincot, L’Invitation à la Chine (Biennale d’Issy-les-Moulineaux), Paris, Beaux-Arts, 1999 (one of the very first retrospectives of contemporary Chinese art in France); Marie-José Mondzain, Transparence, opacité ? 14 artistes contemporains chinois, Paris, Cercle d’art, 1999 (a remarkable reflection by a philosopher who specialises in the image); Jean-Marc Decrop and Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Modernités chinoises, Paris, Skira, 2003 (the collection of a Paris gallery owner with a commentary by an academic); Made by Chinese, Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, 2001 (a practical inventory and biographies of major contemporary Chinese institutional artists); Paris / Pékin, Espace Cardin Asiart archive, Paris, 2002 (a superb inventory of the private collection of Baron Ullens).
Post Avant-garde: An Issue About the Stance of Chinese Contemporary Art
The rapidly developing economy of China with its population of 1.3 billion has fueled not just economy , but also the growth of an important cultural industry, contemporary art Since the debut of Chinese artists on the international art stage in 1993 at the 45th Venice Biennale, Chinese participation has become a regular feature in all major international exhibitions.
However, in sharp contrast to the success of artists，Chinese curators，collectors，art media and art institutions are still not truly engaged with the international art system. On the occasions when they do get involved，they mostly play minor roles，or at worst serve as“spicing”for diversification. No matter how many international exhibitions have been held in China，and how many overseas artists invited，Chinese contemporary art remains primarily a target for western curators，collectors，art media and art institutions Something can be said about such kind of integration with the world：it benefits the opening up of Chinese culture and society, and provides opportunities for artists；however, other serious problems have risen：it encourages opportunism and fosters a type of post—colonial mentality. Furthermore，due to the restrictive selection of the cultural Other, and the institutionalized role of international exchange，this also obscures serious local cultural problems. With the establishment of the official China Pavilion at the Venice Biennale，the presence of Chinese contemporary art in the becomes increasingly the sounding board of official tome.
Under such a“conspiracy”，what Chinese contemporary art lacks is critical thinking，a thinking based on local context and indigenous issues. Without a freely critical thinking supported by academic knowledge，there is no way to precisely interpret and understand Chinese contemporary art. The collective muteness of Chinese critics leaves our art defenseless on the international stage.
In 1993 when Achille Bonito Oliva invited 14 Chinese contemporary artists to the Venice Biennale in the name of Wandering in Orient Land，I published one article titled Oliva Is No Saviour of Chinese Art. Why not? The reason is：Oliva’s selection did not reflect the real dilemma in the life of Chinese people. China’s main dilemma is the widening economic gap caused by the collusion of market economy and bureaucratic power, which has fundamentally shaken the traditionally accepted ideological premise of equality. Faced with the collapse of traditional values，what can China do to regain its footing? How should it revive its culture in this new age? This is a critical issue for contemporary Chinese art，and an issue shared by every nation regardless of historical cultural differences，whether East or West .
In today’s world，dominant modes of production still allow Capital to claim unfair majority of surplus value created by Labour. In China，such capital is further strengthened by the power of institutionalized bureaucracy. In my understanding，the“cultural nomadism”promoted by Oliva is not a sort of cultural tourism taking pleasure in spectacles of nomadic shepherds grazing their herds along the streets of Paris or New York，but a sharing of artistic creations from various cultural backgrounds. We must realize that there is no ‘internationalization’ that can transcend regionalism. Even the Trans—avant-garde Movement promoted by Olivia himself originated from the regional art of Italy．Hence，Chinese artists only have a true presence，and significance as artists，when they return to current social and cultural problems in their own society.
Due to the volatile political system and the abnormal development of consumer culture in China today, the entire society is pervaded by commercialism and utilitarianism. In art this can be evidenced by artists‘ evasion of social issues，avoidance of historical memories，and lack of humanitarian concern for those abandoned by the current social system. Their concern is catering to the needs of domestic and overseas art markets and pandering to communication media. In fact，since the 1980s，there has been no fundamental change in the historical context of Chinese contemporary art .While we deal with modernist issues about individualism and formalism，and post modern theme of cultural identification, the pre-modern theme of enlightenment has still not been resolved. Under such circumstance，official recognition of contemporary art is more like a form of baiting，luring with personal benefits，with the aim of enticing avant-garde art to give up its critical stance.
A key problem here is the attack on Chinese avant-garde art by post-modern scholars as they wage war against modernism‘s universal principles. In fact，when post-modern scholars like Foucault or Lyotard reflected on the principle of equity of Enlightenment philosophy, they did not challenge the basis of modernity, namely, the primacy of individual freedom and a related legal system for establishing a sound society and new national culture. What they condemn is precisely the regressive absolutism in society, and the application of the power of knowledge，cultural industry and ideology to manipulate individual minds .The importance of China’s avant-garde art movement since the 1980s lies precisely in its persistent pursuit of individual values.
There are at least four reasons that justify the assertion of individual values: firstly，we can note the inherent difference of each individual，based on his physical and psychological make-up; secondly, the special personality and temperament resulting from individual experience；thirdly, factors natural and social that combine to make an infinite diversity of people；fourthly, different expectations and inclinations affecting every person’s growth and development.
The importance of art rests upon the foundation of individual values.
Regional diversity should always be accounted for in the discussion of individual consciousness and individual values. Cultural heritage also plays an important role. For this reason Chinese artists should not ignore indigenous roots for the sake of‘internationalization’，neither should they discard history for the sake of being ‘contemporary’. Regional characteristics are integral to individuality. Therefore，individuality，‘regionality’ and internationality should constitute the three different levels of discussion about contemporary art. ‘Regionality’ is the embodiment of internationality and a deepening of individuality．In this sense，our emphasis on individuality is not only a critique of collectivism within China，but also a critique of the international structure of collective power．For this reason the pursuit of individual values by Chinese avant-garde artists does not fundamentally change with the new context of post-modernism. However, today the ideals of avant-garde art a re facing challenges from two sides. On the one hand there is the seduction of fame and acceptance when entering the circuit of international art. On the other there is the similar seduction when it is accepted by the Chinese official cultural institution.
The novel situation facing contemporary art today is the increasing necessity for art to open up to social reality and mass culture，this means it is necessary for artists to depart from the modernist ideal of formal，individual pursuit，and emphasis instead the need for interaction，both with people and with society as a whole. Through interaction each artist brings forth their individuality and special character．Interactivity is not just a call for art to step outside its boundaries，but also a call to change its artistic character. This means artists must not look at themselves as omniscient cultural revolutionaries who enforce their wisdom on society. Instead，they must open up to other people and to society so as to experience social reality，history and existence，so that they may realize their own potentials and contribute to the history of contemporary culture. Contemporary art should not simply pay lip service to social reality, but must seek to expose all hidden impediments to spiritual growth as it engages the social world Comparing‘modern’art and. ‘contemporary’art: while both point toward the depth of social and spiritual experience, the only difference is the angle each takes；contemporary art aims to be open and interactive，rather than closed and solitary．
For artists, reflections on real life and popular culture should embody their engagements with and critique of social reality and history. This constitutes the heterodoxy and heterogeneity(namely the avant-garde nature)of art. Contemporary art is not the self—righteous prophet described in Kandinsky’s Spiritual Triangle，who takes upon himself the mission of directing the spirit of the age. A contemporary artist is one who is immersed in social reality, yet maintains alertness against the alienating forces of totalitarianism，cultural industry and ideologically induced habits. His mission is to expose the methods of these alienating powers，and to critique accepted cultural methods so as to pave the way for new cultural practices .If the Hong Kong exhibition‘China’s New Art Post 1989’of1993 was a pioneering event in showing the achievements of new art since the 1980s New Wave Movement, which was then announced to the world through the platforms of Sao Paulo Biennial and Venice Biennial，then the most important things to look for today,10 more years later, are related but alternative post avant-garde artworks. By the‘post avant-garde’is not meant a difference in temporal period；it refers to a creativity that embodies a different creative consciousness and involving alternative artistic alligances. When the ‘post avant-garde’comes to maturity and is ready to display its achievements，that is the time when international exchange and historical manifestation are ready to unfold. On the one hand this will be an international exchange based on individual expressions of the Chinese situation；on the other hand it will be a manifestation of contemporary China through a fresh ‘historicism’.
Likewise for critics，if their ambition is independent artistic and critical insight，their mission would be the research and promotion of the‘post avant-garde’，an art that grows out of the historical situation of contemporary China. What should be done mainly are the followings:
1. For Whom Does History unfold
The global economy has brought about the globalization of consumer culture, and under the overwhelming dynamism of mass culture intellectuals can only but step aside to the fringe. This is not necessarily a bad thing for them, as it allows them to think and ponder the social, cultural, spiritual and individual ethical issues facing their time. They are made to history from within. History is the last stand that cannot be robbed from intellectuals. It is to them that falls the privilege of inspecting history and analyzing the root cause of things. It is to them that is given the opportunity to write history, preserve the memory of its experience as a nation and a people; then finally to create history and within the resigned determinism of current reality, to ponder the possibilities for humanity. Just as artists and art can only hope to seek solace in art history, the enquiries of intellectuals can only be historical; and because of this, these enquiries must be directed at present realities.
2. Living Within Problems
We call the young art movement of the 1980’s ‘avant-garde’ because the participants identified themselves under this banner. They challenged the dominant official artistic tradition, and made their marks as pioneers of diversity in contemporary art. The ‘self’, as a heroic personality supported by the general principles of Enlightenment, was regarded as self-evident and true. But, into the 1990’s after Chinese society entered a market economy, we discovered that we are all living within problems; we are all part of the problems. So heroes turn into dwarfs, dwarfed by financial capital and privilege capital, and this is the sadness of intellectuals and avant-garde art. The problem is not just that we live within problems, but that we must reflect on ourselves before we can face these problems, especially reflections about the responsibilities and conscience of ourselves as ones who have benefited, and consider the relation of our existence to those still on the fringe of society, at the dredge and in the wilds. A true artist is one who would definitely defend awareness of the self, and not a selfish individualist desperate for gains.
3. Enquiry From an Alternative Position
Market economy, cultural industry, dominant ideology and their public media not only attempt to control our needs, they even try to control us by making us willingly want what they want. Individual rights and spiritual liberty is today more seriously challenged, in more intense and more complex ways, than any period since the Enlightenment. Chinese society has not stepped into a ‘post-industrial’ era with the arrival of global economy and information revolution, we are in fact caught within a cultural matrix of pre-modern era, problems about personality and formalism from the modern era and issues of cultural identity have not been resolved. Therefore Chinese contemporary art should not simply take at face value the looks of post-modern art, and get unduly excited about ideological cross-over and iconographic interpretation. Art must enquire from an alternative position: choosing to remain non-mainstream when culture is officially controlled, become an anarchist when the spirit is restricted, and stand for the negation of negation when life is alienated. Art’s enquiries should adopt an alternative way, an anarchistic and non-mainstream way, to confront raw life, cultural context and spiritual pursuit.
4. Difference Within Interaction
If we say the human spirit needs to constantly enrich, deepen and transcend, that it needs a rounded development, then we would have full reason to argue for cultural diversity. The principle of difference in contemporary art is built precisely upon such a basis. In contrast to the general principle of modernism, this does not imply negation; instead this is built upon the modern individual’s principle of liberated thinking that came about from the Enlightenment. Difference is not simply the distance between cultures; it is also the distance between social groups within the same culture. In a manner of speaking, the individual’s specificity is the result of crossing different social groups and diverse cultures. Therefore a person’s cultural identity is determined by his social group belonging and cultural belonging. What we call ‘individuality’ is the accident, and the possibility, of such belonging. There is no such thing as a pure individual, there is only a responsible individual within human relationships. Therefore the individual is always interactive, and his counterpart can either be other social groups or ethnic groups, or historical memory and cultural reality. Interactivity is the unavoidable outcome of difference, and this truth is evidence of the wisdom of dialectics: true specificity arises from the crossing of generality; true individuality comes out of the richness of specificity. Specificity, as the mediator of generality and individuality, is that which we most treasure in art.
“Chinese painting already reached a dead end” has become the talk of the painting circle. However, people with such a view are by no means looking at the existing state of Chinese painting from this perspective. The truth is a little bit more complex than we can imagine. Contemporary Chinese painting has arrived at a crossroads where it is presented with these mutually opposing choices: crisis or new life; destruction or creation. Contemporary Chinese artists find themselves in frustration and anxiety as well as introspection and contemplation, which is a reflection of the characteristics of our historical development. It is toughest to be a Chinese painter now than in any other historical periods, as his creative talent is significantly stifled by objective pressure and subjective dissatisfaction. Indeed, for contemporary Chinese artists, it is a baptism to face up to the challenges of the times.
As one aspect of the feudal ideology，traditional Chinese painting is deeply rooted in an absolutely closed authoritarian society. According to the feudal cardinal guide of “the Invariable Heaven, and the Invariable Tao”, Chinese feudal society which lasted 2000 years demonstrated astonishing stability from Confucius to Sun Yat-sen, which restrict the development of art as Ideology. Both from form and content, Chinese paintings maintained a balance with the social process from the formation, development to the decline and did not show any mutation or leap. The history of Chinese painting is actually a process of unceasingly perfection of formal artistic medium adopted to pursue the so called ‘artistic conception (yijing)’ on techniques, and one that is continuously narrowing down on artistic concepts and aesthetic experiences.
It is not difficult to understand that from early Chinese paintings(silk painting, fresco, relief stone sculpture)to later ones, the evolution of form in painting is to gradually phase out the kind of pure point, line, color, black way to mould, but gives these formal symbols with Abstract aesthetic mean. It is safe to say that the stronger the abstract aesthetic tastes emphasizing brush work of calligraphy is, the better it is to indicate the stricter rule in the form of Chinese painting. Following this, the apex of technical perfection therefore led to a sheer and rigid abstract form. Thus Chinese painters began to focus on painting techniques in pursuit of ‘artistic conception (yijing)’, which is the most conservative elements in later Chinese painting, rather than on exploration of artistic concepts.
Of course, the “stagnation” of traditional Chinese painting development is not simply a result of the conservative feudalism; the weakness of Chinese painting theory also stifled the practice of Chinese painting in a considerable extent. The ultimate meaning of Chinese painting theory is not how to guide the painting to observe and grasp the changing beauty of life by the roots, but empirical talk which is dominated by the national characteristics of “take methodology more seriously than theory” and collected on the foundation of large amount of painting practices. Among which some of the valuable and essential parts are often lost in numerous lengthy and repeated methodology. The “Six Codes” has actually become the highest standards of Chinese painting both in Aesthetic judgments and creative methods. (Although many ancient painters and theorists have made complements to this “Six Codes” after it was proposed by Xie He, but the theory was not largely modified by them). If painting theory does not provide dialectical epistemology to painting practices, and does not guide practices fundamentally to open up new aesthetic concepts but remain in the low-level emphasizing teacher-student relationship, and specific skills of painting, or proposes some vague ideas (sometimes may be classic too), it will not be helpful to provides guidance on painting practice to make continuous innovation. As you know, the history of development is a dialectical integration of succession and intermittence, gradual progress and revolution. When the social progressive accumulation reached the breaking point, brand new, epoch-making theory, namely the revelation and foresight made standing on the peak of intellectual and social development is needed to promote the rapid expansion and carrying out of social practices. However, the leading nature of theory is not only stifled by objective conditions, but also the tradition of theory itself. Under the historical condition of today, Chinese painting theory need to be fundamentally changed, rather than be revised or complemented.
So, we must discard the old theoretical system and cognition of the arts and pay more attention to emphasize conceptual issues in modern painting. Painting concept is a series of constructive factors dominating paintings: painter’s understanding of the subject, the approach to objects to represent with technology and how to constitute a unique “visual language” which is different from other sensory stimulation etc.
Changes in concept are the beginning of painting revolution. We must recognize and evaluate contemporary Chinese paintings according to this basic point. The new viewpoint of painting was not fabricated; it would for sure absorb from the outstanding traditional heritage. The so-called artistic heritage is certainly not a bunch of dead goods which lined up for people to pick and use whenever they need and mix them up randomly according to temporary needs. The outstanding heritage of Chinese painting refers to the spiritual essence which integrated space, time, and observer himself. On the point that painter project ideal and mood to the objects he painted as an observer, the practice of Chinese painting highly matches the modern scientific spirit( such as the relativity theory, principle of quantum theory, etc.). As the German physicist Heisenberg said: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to us through our method of questioning.” Indeed, it is just the superior oriental artistic spirit that modern Chinese painting needs to carry forward. By understanding this, no one shall misunderstand new painting concept to be abstract stereotype
So, which aspects of Chinese painting should we reform？We show our admiration to Fan Kuan and Zhu Da when we read the album of their paintings or in the museum, it shows at least two things: first, preconceived aesthetic concepts are controlling us when we appreciate pictures, second, these works are indeed able to arouse echo in our hearts both in aesthetic sentiments and forms. We are willing to acknowledge the greatness of ancients and insignificance of ourselves. It clearly revealed the fact that as long as we are infatuated with the ancient art forms and perceive Chinese painting with a traditional view, we will have no choice but to acknowledge that ancients are smarter than us and worship the ancient on our knees. So it can be seen that the primary task of reforming Chinese painting is to change our worship to the strict formal standards and break through the old fashioned formal restrictions.
The Chinese painting reached an end-stage of development in the age of painters such as Ren Bonian, Wu Changshuo and Huang Binhong.( there are already great heroes in figure, flower-and-bird and landscape painting) Although contemporary Chinese artists did not give up to continue the diligent work in the garden of Chinese painting, but they obtained little success. When we see a large number of talented artists are still defending the obviously outdated artistic concepts, and have indeed wasted so much energy in practice, the only thing we can do is to show our deep sorrow and sympathy; When we see some painters who consider themselves quintessence school painters above politics and worldly interests, especially some of the once famous old painters despising the reform movement of art, we believe that this is not lofty, but stupid and lazy. He who wants to be Don Quixote would make themselves the laughing-stock of the afterworld. Schiller said that the dangerous threat is the extreme vulgarness, while the most detestable vulgarness is loafing about and muddling along. The nature of art is to create continually, without it, art will become merely manual skills that make ends meet.
It should be admitted that the efforts of contemporary Chinese artists are not entirely in vain. They recognized that the traditional Chinese painting has been senile, and is trying to catch up with the times breathlessly and only could absorb some leavings of cultural heritage. Painters like Liu Haisu, Shi Lu, Zhu Qizhan, Lin Fengmian and others are those who began their art career under the influence of trend of thought in the new era. They didn’t lift their voice to clamor the urgency of reform in art, yet they played the role of a link between past and future in practice. Their conception in painting was limited in the scope of traditional thought, but this did not obstruct their practice in exploring new aesthetic experiences. What promoted them to do so was the talented artistic insight and irresistible creative spirits of these artists. As the outstanding representatives of contemporary Chinese painting, they could certainly not be regarded as epochal masters; yet as artists who have led Chinese paintings to go on the way of modern art, they should enjoy the highest honor. To evaluate the position of an artist in the history of art, we should mainly see whether he had made any breakthrough in the form of art and any exploration in the concept of art. So the basis to confirm Liu Haisu and other artists as outstanding ones is that their created had added to the continuation of Chinese painting.
If Liu Haisu, Shi Lu, Zhu Qizhan, Lin Fengmian and others are more inclined to the modern aspects in painting（of course, views on modern painting were merely seen in their works）, then Pan Tianshou and Li Keran’s works contained more rational elements, they have not exceeded the track of traditional Chinese painting yet, and they only wanted to put their effort in finding new subject matters in life. They moved toward the extreme in some traditional technique, namely they paid too much attention to the pictures, which influenced the direct reveling of sentiment in pictures. Thus their way of art became even narrower. Their shortcomings did not affect themselves that much (Their diligence, hard work and talent helped to make it up) but the disadvantages have been largely magnified on their students. We can say that, most influenced of Pan Tianshou and Li Keran’s achievements in Chinese painting are negative for the later generations. Compared with them, Fu Baoshi also had something in common. His painting was unique. He has a unique way to perceive tradition. The biggest characteristic of him was his great attention paid to life experience, so when you see his painting you can actually smell the real life. However, he inclined too much to naturalistic style. Among all famous contemporary artists, he was one who used least traditional methods; He fell into the convention of old bottles for new wine while rebelling against tradition. Painters influenced by Fu Baoshi, not only lost the vigor of Fu’s works but also completed his artistic exploration which he hasn’t done and fixed it rigidly to be a normalized mode.
Certainly, explorations on Chinese painting by Pan Tianshou, Li Keran and Fu Baoshi are noteworthy. However, Li Kuchan， Huang Zhou and others are much more inferior . In fact, Li Kuchan’s works were the typical sample of putting pieces together. He didn’t fully understand the spirit of traditional Chinese painting by root and he just drew out the advantages on some skills and even the disadvantages from senior painters and then moved them into his works with hardly any changes. He’s adept skill in brushwork did not upraise his art, but caused the loss of his personality instead. Huang Zhou and Cheng Shifa’s works are monotonous repetition. Their early works did show some talent with a kind of passions of young artists. However, they soon came to a stagnation; specifically, churning out is their main problem which showed that their understanding of art was too inadequate. Many figure painters similar to Huang Zhou and Cheng Shifa are all incapable of not making their mistakes——their figure paintings have already become the game of brushwork with the pure goal to develop the characteristics of ink and wash.
Make a general survey of the current Chinese painting, we can not find a leader of art reform movement which is quietly launched before our eyes at present among the numerous famous painters. This era doesn’t need artists who could only inherit cultural tradition, but artists who can make epochal contribution. We should create such an atmosphere: each artist can abandon the strict specifications in technique and rigid aesthetic standards to create a colorful and varied art form on the basis of free exploration. Don’t worry, real artists who are living in modern China will neither be “westernized” nor cling to the “national essence”. National life customs and modern concepts open to international world would bring unlimited prospects to contemporary Chinese painting. Courage, nerve and strength are basic requirements of artists who have the lofty ideal to bring out a new situation for contemporary Chinese painting. We use the words of Epicurus to end this article: people who agree with God may not be sincere, while people who disagree with God may not be insincere.
Looking forward to the Establishment of New Critical discourse
——Also discuss the issue of how to establish the measure of value in criticizing Chinese contemporary art from 2000 to 2009
In the conception of “Reshaping History — Chinart from 2000 to 2009” exhibition, two critics, Lv Peng and Zhu Zhu wish to make a comprehensive review, sorting and summarization of Chinese contemporary art since 2000, in an attempt to display some typical phenomena and works of art through exhibition, thereby to construct a basic theoretical framework and a narrative context of art history, and provide some necessary texts and visual materials for arts researchers. We can say that this work is full of challenge and has a constructive significance. But, whether or not can we use “Chinart (New art of China)” to refer to the typical works of this period is still debatable. For “Chinart” as a brand-new concept, we not only need to define the border of its form clearly, but also to provide a set of discourse about its own connotation and denotation from perspectives of art and culture, especially the narrative of art history. That is to say, we need to sort out how critical discourse and theoretical system of “Chinart” were established? In my opinion, if we want to use the concept of “Chinart”, we need at least to make necessary definitions from perspectives of time dimension and culture connotation. For example, could art post 2000 be defined as “new art”? If it is not bordered by time, then does “new art” have requirements in artistic form? Does it have clear cultural demands? And how could it keep a contextual relation with the previous contemporary art history? Obviously, if we do not define “Chinart”, then this concept will eventually become meaningless for being vague and general.
However, discussions about “new art” can not avoid a core issue: what is the measure of value for Chinese contemporary art? In other words, as for artistic creations from 2000 to 2009, we can by all means use other concepts to replace “Chinart”, but, no matter what concepts we use and choose, we will need to show the basic appearance or trend of the creation in the recent 10 years through an exhibition. Meanwhile, we must answer a basic question that what on earth is the value of contemporary art creation in this period. The reason why we agree with contemporary art is actually an agreement of value. Even though this value can emphasis on different connotations due to different contexts, such as on culture, politics, the history of arts, spirits and the history of thought, but this does not stop us from finding a value orientation with universal meaning or dominant role. Therefore, if we would discuss creations of Chinese contemporary art in the recent 10 years, we must discuss whether they have represented the problem of new value and if we discuss this problem, we would also need to go back to context of the development of Chinese contemporary art.
Briefly, in 1980s, value demands of Chinese contemporary art are mainly reflected in two aspects: one is to emphasize the critical standpoint of avant-garde art. In the whole historical context of art in 1980s, contemporary art and mainstream system kept an encouraging and struggling relation. No matter “Stars Art Society”, “Anonymous Painting Society (wuming huahui)”, or folk art groups emerged during ’85 thought trend period, most artists adopt ways of “Civil vs. Official, Avant-garde vs. Conservation, Marginal vs. Mainstream, Elites vs. The public” to instruct their own creations. Another is to realize the contemporary reformation in artistic language. This can be seen in the popular saying that “we used less than ten years to go through the 100-year artistic style of the West”. Of course, no matter pursuing the rebellious characteristics of avant-garde art or realizing the construction of modern language, Chinese contemporary art in 1980s still set foot on localized cultural context and was seeking for a transformation in cultural modernization, namely to achieve ideological liberation, to comply with the creative freedom of individual and to defend the independence of art.
In 1990s, Chinese contemporary art developed in an almost brand-new context of society and culture. Compared with 1980s, other than emphasizing its own rebellious characteristics, Chinese contemporary art is also confronted with an erosion of post-colonial trend of thought due to globalization, and multiple shocks of popular culture and culture of consumption. At present, issues such as arts and market, cultural identity against the background of globalization, survival strategies of avant-garde art, system of international exhibition, are directly or indirectly affecting the evolution and development of Chinese contemporary art itself. Therefore, value demands of Chinese contemporary art in this period are mainly about emerging issues such as localization vs. globalization, eastern vs. western, cultural conservatism vs. post-colonialism. By the end of 1990s, inner value measurement of Chinese contemporary art has basically formed, which was its anti-official status, and avant-garde nature, experimental nature, elitism and critical characteristics reflected in both artistic language and cultural demand – they together bestowed “contemporary” with rich humanistic meanings of history, reality and art.
From 2000 onwards, Chinese contemporary art entered into a brand-new developing period and faced with a situation of artistic history which is different from that of 1980s and 1990s.In this situation, new realistic circumstance and artistic ecology will definitely change our way of expression when we discuss the value demands of Chinese contemporary art. If we observe it roughly, there is some changes claim attention. 1. Both connotation and denotation of “contemporary art” have changed a lot. In 1980s and 1990s, the connotation and cultural orientation of contemporary art are its avant-garde nature and rebellious characteristic. However, since the end of 1990s, avant-garde and rebellious characteristics of contemporary art started to be spalled and swallowed by various opportunism, cynicism and utilitarianism. 2. Exhibition system and external living condition changed fundamentally. This is mainly reflected in three aspects: (1) In recent years, China has established its more mature biennale mode; (2) International exhibition platforms are gradually increasing in number; (3) Solo-exhibition or joint exhibition held by galleries, art museums and art Expos have realized diversification in exhibition modes. We can easily find that, different from early Chinese contemporary art seeking for an entry to public space , craving for shifting from “underground” to “stage”, today’s contemporary art already has a certain degree of legitimacy, with a large number of opportunities of international communication. However, the formation of all kinds of exhibition systems not only changed the external living environment of Chinese contemporary art, but also imperceptibly affected artists’ adjustment in creative strategies. 3. Chinese contemporary art entered a comprehensive marketized phase. Marketization played an active role in promoting contemporary arts while also brought about great negative effects. For example, since 2004, one of the results brought by the integration of art capital and market is the overflow of iconized and symbolized creation of contemporary art, as well as the prevalence of kitsch-oriented and anti-intellectual aesthetic appreciation. Of course, another result is that, relevant art institutions formed a series of comprehensive operational plans from packaging, promotion, and auction to collection and others by controlling a variety of funds; they took contemporary art works as an important tool to operate art market. This transformation would naturally draw people’s attention to re-trial the function and value of contemporary art. 4. Since 2007, some art institutions of the government accelerated the incorporating and accepting process of contemporary art, and tried to integrate contemporary art with the development strategy of national culture to promote. It is for sure that this transformation does not only neutralize the rebellious and independent spirits of early contemporary art, but also, would have lasting and profound influences on the future development of contemporary art.
Under these new contexts of history and reality, how to rebuild the measure of value criterion for contemporary arts becomes a hot potato. Especially when facing creations of contemporary art since 2000, we can’t help wondering, what are their value demands? What kind of relation should they keep with the surrounding culture and reality? Through ten years of creation, perhaps, we can reach the following consensus. 1. Contemporary art should inherit their avant-garde and rebellious spirits. Here the avant-garde and rebellious spirits are mainly reflected in two aspects: one is to take against that rigid, archaic mainstream culture, as well as the popular, kitsch mass culture; another one is that contemporary art is in need of self-denial as well, which is to overturn pre-fixed avant-garde spirits with an avant-garde spirit. The Significance of the former one is to keep the independent, self-disciplinary elitism stance of contemporary art and that of the latter lies in maintaining vitality and promoting continuous developments of contemporary arts. 2. Contemporary art shall comply with the development logic of local culture. Meanwhile, artists should keep sensitivity to social reality, and defend the criticalness of contemporary art. Even though the value of contemporary art is also reflected in the renewal and experiments of artistic language, but its core value still lies in its critical function on society as well as the irreplaceable “Chinese experience” inside the works. It is necessary to point out that, “Chinese experience” does not originate from cultural conservatism and cultural strategy of “post-colonial” which is to please western countries here, but aims to really set the foot of “contemporary” in the stance of China, with new meanings derived from categories like sociology and culturology and others. 3. Contemporary art should comply with existing tradition of art history, and artists should be able to propose new possibilities on methodology of artistic creation while maintaining an independent creation state. Whereat, individual independence is not taken into account from aesthetic category of modernism, on contrary, it focuses more on the political meaning reflected in the creative activity itself, namely to put creative freedom of individuals into the category of democratic politics for measuring, and enabling creations of contemporary art to become an important part of the democratization process of China. 4. Contemporary art should insist on pluralistic development, meanwhile, artists adhere to an open cultural standpoint and possess the insight and capability to participate in international dialogue. We should say that, from 2000 onwards, no matter taken into account in perspectives of time or creative conception, one of the characteristics of Chinese contemporary art is that it can keep pace with Western contemporary art and its development. Although above points can not cover all aspects of contemporary art, but they can at least give us a basic idea to understand and comment on contemporary art.
In a word, due to the great changes taken place in the history of art since 2000, development of Chinese contemporary art and the criterion to measure its value would definitely be affected and changed. Of course, it is not important whether the representative works emerged during this period are called “Chinart (New Art of China)” or not, because, the real key point is that whether we could find a critical discourse to state, descript and summarize these works according to them, and then to combine them with the narrative of art history and construct a brand-new system of theory. Only under such a condition could tradition and cultural spirits of contemporary art be inherited and continued, so that a dominant, universal measure of value for contemporary art could be finally established.
This is a collection of images and articles that cover the astounding new museums of art being built or already built-in China over the last few years. The startling rise of China’s gigantic economy is being matched by their movement and presence on the global stage. China has both centers for art production in Shanghai and Beijing, and a dazzling new international art market that will also be the third reveal of the phenomenal Art Basel art fair, which debuts in Hong Kong in 2013. No where else on earth is as fast-moving as the exponential growth in the China art scene and art worlds. China already has world-class collectors and collections, and is repatriating art purchased in the West back into its country of origin. China also is positioned in the secondary markets with its own global branded auction houses. China is building remarkable and gorgeous, stunningly beautiful museums that represent everything from a region to the nation to a single person contemporary artist. Yet what will further ground all the cultural movement are these new and amazing super-large scaled museums of art. Take for example the Chinese Museum of Wood. It is both spiritual and everyday, and holds most rewarding examples of works created in the woodworking tradition. Fortunately for us in the West, and in the US in particular, we will finally get to see China showcase itself in all of its cultural manifestations – no different than has Paris, with its various historic museums both small and enormous, that are markers of civilization for all the accomplishments of humanity.
CHINA DAILY RECENTLY reported that 100 new museums open in China every year. Some are private, some are linked to upmarket shopping malls, and others are public institutions established by a government that seems suddenly to be aware of the cultural deprivation it has imposed on its citizens over recent decades. Since 1949, a lot of Chinese culture simply just disappeared.
Now suddenly Chinese contemporary art has become a hot commodity with records being broken at auction almost every week and official institutions running hard to catch up with collectors who are opening their own private museums and galleries.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Shanghai a city of 25 million people and one clearly making a play to become the cultural centre of China; in the previous 12 months alone Shanghai has seen the opening of China’s largest private contemporary art museum – The Long Museum – and two monolithic public art spaces, the Power Station of Contemporary Art and the New China Art Museum in the refurbished China Pavilion on the 2010 China Expo site.
The Power Station of Contemporary Art, on the banks of the Huangpu River, was converted over a frenetic nine months from the Nanshi Power Plant into mainland China’s first state-run contemporary art museum at a cost of US$64 million. It may not be the equivalent of London’s Tate Modern, yet, but its conceptual heart is beating confidently within its 41,200-square-meter space which itself is dwarfed by the 62,000 square meters of the colossal New China Art Museum.
Museums both private and public seem to be sprouting everywhere. But it is an activity that requires big bucks; the infrastructure is staggering, the ongoing costs breathtaking and the cost of the art beyond the reach of all but the über-rich.
Chinese property developer Dai Zhikang is currently putting the finishing touches to a huge US$480 million development in Shanghai’s rapidly expanding Pudong District. The Himalayas Centre designed by acclaimed Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, includes conference facilities, luxury hotel, restaurants and shopping spaces; located on the top floor of the development is Zhikang’s soon-to-be-opened vast curvilinear Shanghai Zendai Himalayas Art Museum in which he will show his own art collection.
Across Shanghai and located in the equivalent of London’s Bond Street, is billionaire Adrien Cheng’s newly opened K11 shopping mall. Known as the ‘Art Mall’, K11 specialises in high-end Western brands. Burberry and Valentino are already in place but the mall is so new that many of the shops are vacant. It still smells of fresh paint and plastic and the highly polished floors are as yet unscuffed. The basement is a dedicated low- ceilinged art gallery that will show work by the country’s leading artists. Last month’s inaugural Shanghai Surprise exhibition was a group show with work from several local art stars including, Yang Fudong, Qui Anxiong and Birdhead.
Close by in the famous Bund area of the city is billionaire Thomas Ou’s Rockbund Art museum housed in an exquisitely restored 1933 Art Deco building that was at one time home to the Royal Asiatic Society. Ou’s large contemporary art space which opened in 2010 has no permanent collection but hosts impressive contemporary shows by leading Chinese artists.
Wang Wei, wife of billionaire entrepreneur Lui Yiqian, has recently opened (December 2012) the largest contemporary art museum in China in Shanghai’s Pudong district. The 10,000-square-meter Long Museum was built to showcase her collection of contemporary and revolutionary Chinese art with the upper floor devoted to ancient Chinese art and antiques which are her husband’s preferences. Wei plans a second museum later this year, part of the West Bank Cultural Corridor in Xuhui District, and will show even more of her collection of contemporary Chinese art.
Not to be out done Budi Tek, an Indonesian-Chinese agribusiness billionaire and Shanghai resident, will also open his Yuz Museum Shanghai on the same Xuhui site to accommodate his personal collection of international and Chinese contemporary art.
Lorenz Helbling, who owns the commercial ShangArt Gallery, has lived in Shanghai since 1995 and has witnessed the growth of private museums in the city. ‘In 1995, no one came to Shanghai to look at art. Now Shanghai is a contemporary city, a city of today and people here are interested in contemporary art even though they are still trying to understand what it art is all about,’ he said dryly.
There are a million millionaires in China but it is only the billionaires – of which there are 122 according to Forbes Magazine – who can afford the private galleries and the art to put in them. Their wealth has grown in parallel with an economy that has embraced, ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics.’ These nouveaux riches are, a ‘fast-growing thicket of bamboo capitalism,’ as The Economist magazine labelled them, with a cashed-up status that has in effect, allowed them to corner the contemporary art market during a period when government cultural institutions seemed uninterested.
Some critics have labelled private museums as vanity projects and a flaunting of wealth. But Wei and Tek, both of whom spoke to Asian Art Newspaper last month in Shanghai, see such accusations as short-sighted. Their galleries are precisely planned philanthropic endeavours which come with clearly defined social responsibilities which include educational and lecture programmes.
Wang Wei’s Long Museum which opened last December in Pudong, cost of 271 million Yuan (US$43 million) to build and is bank-rolled by her billionaire industrialist husband, Liu Yiqian. The 10,000 square-meter space will cost 7 million Yuan annually to run Liu told CCTV recently. But the sobriquet of the Long Museum being China’s largest private museum will be short-lived. Later this year, Wang Wei will open her second even larger 16,000-square-meter, contemporary art space on an abandoned airfield that is being turned into the West Bank Cultural Corridor (WBCC) in Xuhiu District on the banks of the Huangpu River. The WBCC is being pioneered by local Party Secretary, Sun Jiwei and will comprise tourist attractions, restaurants, commercial space and parkland. DreamWorks Animation has already signed a multi-million dollar deal to build a movie studio and entertainment zone on the site.
Wang Wei’s museum will not be the only one on the site either. Tek is building his own privately financed Yuz Museum Shanghai there too. ‘Right next door to DreamWorks,’ Tek said. Tek’s 8,000-square-meter building designed by acclaimed Japanese architect, Sou Fujimoto is the first phase of a development that will eventually take in adjacent land and add a further 20,000 square meters of exhibition space. Wang Wei and her husband Liu Yiqian have been collecting Chinese art for over 20 years. Liu, who is 171 on Forbe’s Magazine China Rich List with an estimated fortune of US$790 million has a passion for ancient and antique Chinese art while Wang Wei has preferred to concentrate on Chinese contemporary and modern and in establishing a museum quality narrative collection of Revolutionary Chinese art that covers 1945 to 2009. Fifteen minutes spent inside the Long Museum is long enough to realise that no expense has been spared; from its soaring 14-meter ceiling of the Central Hall to the unpolished marble flagstones of the stair well to the fastidious nature of the displays, all speak of a high degree of finesse rarely seen in private or public galleries.
News China reported that Lui Yiqian and Wang Wei spent US$139 million on art in 2009 the same year Yiqian set an auction record for a piece of Chinese furniture when he paid US$11 million for an 18th-century Imperial Qianlong period zitan throne, which is now displayed on the third floor of the Long Museum alongside ancient scrolls and fine porcelain all of which are bathed in pools of soft light triggered by the movement of visitors through the gallery. Annual running costs of seven million Yuan have led commentators to question the sustainability of private museum. But Wang Wei dismisses concerns about sustainability and points out that the name, Long Museum, was chosen because its Chinese pictogram means long-lasting. ‘The Long Museum will last for one hundred years,’ she said.
Budi Tek, whose Shanghai Yuz Museum will be the second museum to carry this name, the first opened in Jakarta in 2008, while happy to stump up the cost of both the building and establishing the collection, remains all too aware that the museum’s long- term viability lies in making it sustainable. He, like Wang Wei, will charge a small entrance fee somewhere between 50 and 100 Yuan he says and which visitors will be able to redeem against other onsite purchases. He plans to generate income from other elements of the development. For example, there will be design and furniture stores, restaurants, book shops and residences onsite which will be available to the public when not being used by artists. But he insists everything will be art-related and all profits will be returned to the museum.
Tek believes there is now too much money chasing too few works of contemporary Chinese art leading to a dearth of affordable museum quality pieces coming on to the market. ‘In China the most important pieces of contemporary Chinese art are already held by us collectors. There are no major museum collections yet,’ he said. Which of course begs the question, what will the mega-public exhibition spaces such as the PSA put on their walls?
More recently, Tek’s collecting has turned away from Chinese contemporary to international installation artists such as Fred Sandback, Antony Gormley and Adel Abdessemed, works that require a lot of space. He is an intuitive and slightly impulsive buyer and while he is happy to defer exhibition decisions to a curator he insists the decision about what he buys is his alone. ‘No one advises me. I see something and I buy it. No one advised me when I bought Maurizio Cattelan’s olive tree. No one advised me when I bought Adel’s plane.’
For her part, Wang Wei is adamant that her collecting policy is driven by a desire to reclaim her culture. It is a philosophy she has pursued resolutely throughout her 20 years of collecting. She insists that Chinese art should remain firmly in Chinese hands and it is this philosophy that has driven her definitive collection of Revolutionary Art. And she does not share Tek’s concerns about the dearth of good contemporary art coming onto the market. For the Long Museum’s opening exhibition 15 leading Chinese contemporary artists including Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun and Zeng Fanzhi created work to hang in the Central Hall. When asked if she owned the 15 works, a spokeswoman for Wang smiled and said, ‘Not yet!’.
Many commentators who question the sustainability of the private museums are also sceptical as to whether they can successfully operate in a climate where the commercial, cultural and political so closely overlap.
The shifting line between what can and cannot be shown in China was highlighted in May this year when Chinese censors excised several Andy Warhol images of Chairman Mao from a touring exhibition 15 Minutes Eternal, of 300 Warhol pictures before it reached Shanghai’s PSA. The images had already been seen in Hong Kong, but were deemed to be irreverent and unsuitable for mainland consumption. The Mao pictures will be reinstated when the exhibition moves on to Tokyo. While the Chinese government is happy to pursue its ‘soft culture’ push overseas, it remains highly sensitive to images that could offend at home.
There are few images in Wang Wei’s collection of Revolutionary Art, with its litany of happy smiling peasant faces and images that extol Chairman Mao’s achievements over half a century of communist party control that would offend the Party hierarchy. Even so Wang Wei takes a cautious ‘softly, softly’ approach and sees her collection in broad terms as, ‘complementary to national collections which for historical reasons cannot present certain art,’ she said enigmatically. Shanghai citizens however are flocking to the new cultural icons throughout the city. Helbling says that since the first Shanghai Biennale in 1996 there has been a steady and growing interest in contemporary art and that now, the big problem for Chinese public galleries is ‘trying to sort out what type of contemporary art they will have’.
The building was designed by MAD Architects, as proposal for the international competition for the future National Art Museum of China in Bejing. Their concept is based on an elevated public square which is protected by a floating mega volume above.
The original structure of the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) built in 1962, houses one of the country’s largest art collections and has played host to some of the influential exhibitions as recorded in contemporary Chinese history. The current plans are to move the institution into a new building, situated within a designated ‘art district’ on the central axis of the 2008 Olympic site.
MAD’s design is organized into three layers, where programs are divided by each level. The one-storey ground floor houses all ancillary functions and is conceived in such a way that it can be operated independently from the museum in off hours. Above this, a 20,000 square meter urban plaza program acts as the main gallery for permanent art collections and exhibitions. The arrangement of this hall gives visitors the opportunity to decide how to engage with the works on show, while simultaneously being surrounded by outward views of the surrounding cityscape courtesy of windows that wrap around the perimeter of the structure. This level is also directly connected to the former Olympic park via a bridge, thus making use of an area of the urban plan which would otherwise be ignored.
This is design of a Beijing based architecture firm named MAD, they unveiled their new museum for Chinese wood sculptures. The museum is located in Habrin main city in Northern China. The city itself is currently trying to defining itself as a regional hub for the arts at a time when the historic city is rapidly expanding. That’s why they choose to build this museum right there right now. The main idea of the Chinese wood sculptures museum is inspired by the unique local landscapes of the city. The museum is a contrast between the elegance of nature and the speed of daily life. The museum is about 200 meters long and for the concept is shaped to explore and reflect the relation between the building and the environment as a big frozen fluid. The interior of the museum is separated on two general parts. Each one represents an expedition. They are connected mutually by a centralized entrance which separates the two museums while simultaneously joining them. This is used to make the impression of symbiotic relationship between the two expeditions. Another good idea by the designers is the full glass roof, this not only make the outside of the building outstanding and looking futuristic, but also helps for the sunlight to lighten the entire museum and helping for the viewing atmosphere inside.
City Sets Ambitious Goal To Open 16 New Museums By 2015
The China Pavilion Will Reopen as the China Art Palace next fall
Shanghai may be known as a city obsessed with the pursuit of money, but in recent years China’s most populous metropolis has busied itself with another obsession: rivaling Beijing as a cultural and artistic hub. As Jing Daily noted this past May, while Beijing still enjoys its status as China’s cultural and political capital, the city’s rampant growth over the past decade has cannibalized many of its vibrant arts districts and threatened many others, alienating the creative community and, in some cases, pushing artists to relocate.
This shift in Beijing, and Shanghai’s well-capitalized initiative to foster a more creative environment in the city, has invigorated Shanghai’s cultural ambitions. Over the last few years, new creative/lifestyle venues like 1933 (a restored Jazz Age abattoir), the Shanghai Songjiang Creative Studio, and the Rockbund Art Museum have opened their doors. Though red tape and fly-by-night private gallery owners continue to plague the industry, by 2015, Shanghai plans to open 16 more large-scale museums and galleries.
As Shanghai Daily writes this week, one of these 16 planned museums and galleries, the massive “China Art Palace,” is attracting particular attention. For the art “Palace,” the China Pavilion from last year’s Shanghai World Expo is being transformed into an art museum “on a par with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris,” according to a senior official. From the article:
The China Art Palace will collect top-level art from home and abroad, primarily to showcase the origins and development of China’s modern arts.
It is part of a plan by the city government to build 16 new major museums and art galleries and many smaller museums by 2015 and make Shanghai an “international cultural metropolis,” said Zong.
“In the future, Shanghai residents will be able to find a museum and cultural venue within a 15-minute walk of their homes,” she said.
“The number and quality of art galleries and museums is an important measure of cultural standing – cities such as New York and Paris are famed for their top-level galleries,” said Teng Junjie, art director of the Shanghai Municipal Administration of Culture Radio Film and TV.
The palace, which will cover an area of 70,000 square meters, will open on a limited basis next October, Zong said.
Most facilities from the former China Pavilion can be retained, bringing considerable savings, she said.
The three levels of the former main exhibition hall of the Expo pavilion will showcase the history and development of modern art of Shanghai and China, while the former joint pavilion for Chinese provinces and municipalities will have separate exhibition rooms for famous Chinese modern artists, including top Shanghai painter Cheng Shifa, said Teng.
As Teng Junjie added this weekend, the aim for cultural officials is to establish three major museums in the city by 2015: “the existing Shanghai Museum, the Shanghai Art Palace and the China Contemporary Art Museum – for historic, modern and contemporary artworks.” But, large scale public projects aside, more museums and galleries won’t do much to transform Shanghai into a cultural hub to rival New York, Paris or even Beijing unless, as Jing Daily pointed out earlier this month, the regulatory environment for private museums and galleries is transformed as well.
Super-Collector Wang Wei’s Dragon Art Museum Hits Construction Milestone
12,000 Square Meter Museum Located In Shanghai’s Pudong District
Zhong Song’s exterior design, featuring a projection of Chen Yifei’s 1987 painting, “The Flute Player”
This past February, Jing Daily covered Chinese art “super-collector” Wang Wei’s long-discussed private art museum in Shanghai, which Wang and billionaire investor husband Liu Yiqian plan to open next year. The “Dragon Art Museum” (龙美术馆) will showcase Wang and Liu’s extensive collection of blue-chip Chinese contemporary art on the ground floor, Wang’s Mao-era “Red Classics” from 1949-1979 on the second, and traditional works and ancient artifacts on the third floor.
Taking over a section of the former Tomson Centre (汤臣别墅商业中心) building in Shanghai’s Pudong district, near the Shanghai New International Expo Center, Wang’s museum will expand the original 8,000 square meter space to 12,000 square meters. With around 15 months to go until the museum’s planned November 18, 2012 grand opening, last weekend construction teams hit a milestone, starting work on the building’s facade.
Designed by Zhong Song (仲松), a “post-70s generation” artist and architect who started off his career at the studio of the late Beijing artist Chen Yifei, the museum’s facade is at tasteful and minimalist, going against the current preference for all things large and loud in the world of Chinese architecture. According to Zhong, the concept of the building’s facade is “clean and quality,” adding that he will use only light-colored granite for the exterior, installing fewer and smaller windows in order to give “a feeling of wholeness” to the building.
Based on an artist rendering of the exterior, which shows a projection of Chen Yifei’s 1987 work, “The Flute Player” on the museum’s facade, expect some high-tech features to be worked into the low-key granite-and-glass design. In addition to the facade currently under construction, crews will soon start work on the auxiliary warehouse, with all construction expected to be complete by the end of this year.
As Wang Wei told the Chinese art magazine Art Finance earlier this summer, she and Liu Yiqian have already invested over 200 million yuan (US$31 million) in the project, and are projecting an annual operating budget of 5 million yuan (US$774,000).
dutch practice MVRDV has won the international competition for the ‘china comic and animation museum’
in hangzhou, china. composed of eight balloon shaped volumes, the design looks to create an internally complex
experience measuring 30,000 square meters in total. fantastical and whimsical in its approach, the proposal is
part of a larger master plan that will include a series of parks, a public plaza and an expo center.
comic book library with view into interactive exhibition zone
set to break ground in 2012, the museum seeks to create a platform which will unite the evolving worlds of art
and entertainment. the application of one of the most iconic cartoon motifs – the speech bubble – allows the unit
to be instantly recognized as a place for comics, animation and cartoons. as text is projected onto the
monochromatic exterior surface, the forms come to life, further transforming the two dimensional motif into a
three dimensional reality.
interactive exhibition space
each of the eight volumes, occupied by unique and independent functions, are interconnected allowing for a
circular tour of the entire building. large voids at the point of interception provide visual connection and access
between the dynamic programs, which include a comic book library and three cinemas.
accommodating a range of versatile exhibition spaces, the museum will feature a permanent collection that is
presented in a chronological spiral along with smaller, adaptive halls for temporary displays.
construction has begun in datong, china on the ‘datong art museum’, designed by london-based practice foster + partners.
four pyramidal roof peaks interlock to define the exterior form, evoking the imagery of an erupted landscape. the external surfaces
are clad with corten steel, a material with earthen hues and will continue to weather over time. one of four new buildings bordering
a new cultural plaza, the 32,000 square meter center will be slightly sunken into the earth, matching the scale of its neighbors.
visitors descend through a stepped courtyard of sculptures to enter the museum.
at the ground level, a grand gallery with a 37 meter tall atrium with a clear span of 80 meters provides a centerpiece area
for large-scale installations and exhibitions. skylights within the high ceilings introduce northern and north-western daylight,
creating an optimal environment to display artworks with natural illumination and minimal solar gain.
aerial view of the entry plaza at night
perimeter exhibition spaces will contain state-of-the-art climate controls. artificial lighting runs along tracks within ceiling recesses
and a 5 meter grid along the floor integrates security, data and power. with 70 percent of the structure formed from a roof,
the building is insulated almost twice more than code requires, reducing the presence and necessary maintenance with only
10 percent overall glazing.
scheduled to open in 2013, the venue will represent the country in the ‘beyond the building’ basel art international tour.
The architectural design concept for The National Art Museum of China by UnStudio reminds the artifact of ancient Chinese “stone drums”. Historically, the Stone Drum bears inscriptions that represent precious piece of the fragmentary puzzle of the Chinese script. This special form of the museum highlights the identity of the country, its spirit and essence. Moreover, the design concept is based on the duplicities that complement each other: day and night, inside and outside, fast and slow, dao or tao, individual and collective.
The main aim of this design concept is to give diversified and visible spaces for pieces of art. Also, the role of light is extremely important in the design of this building. The edifice is constructed in such a way that gives more opportunities for artists and curators in displaying their works and showing their ideas. Designers of the museum creating their work did not forget about the visitors. So, internally it is organized in such a manner that gives visitor a possibility to explore the museum by different paths around thematic consistencies of art.
Museum is greatly involved in urban context and provides the strong cultural presence for the area.
Museum Lighting: National Museum Of China – Art and culture iGuzzini
About the project
One of the most ambitious project for the museum lighting made by iGuzzini is certainly the National Museum of China, completed in 1959 as one of ten important public buildings in Tiananmen Square, in direct proximity to the Forbidden City, the museum is still a milestone in the history of modern Chinese architecture.
The conversion and extension of the Chinese National Museum combines the former Chinese History Museum with the Chinese Revolutionary Museum. Outline plans were invited from ten international architectural firms and the project was awarded to Gerkan, Marg & Partners (gmp) for its submission, together with Beijing’s CABR, ahead of Foster & Partners, Kohn Pedersen Fox, OMA & Herzog & de Meuron.
The original GMP submission envisaged gutting the existing museum. The aim was to join the northern and southern wings in a single complex, by removing the central structure. The 260 metre long hall acts as its central access area. It widens to embrace the existing central entrance which opens onto Tiananmen Square. The ‘forum’ thus created acts as an atrium and multi-functional events area, with all services for the public, that is to say, cafes and tea shops, book shops and souvenir stores, ticket offices and toilets.
The museum lighting for the coffered roof extending along the entire forum and in the central Hall was designed by the lighting design office conceptlicht. A key feature of the concept is a special luminaire, developed by conceptlicht and produced by iGuzzini, which creates a welcoming atmosphere throughout the building.
This project required a customized solution to conceal the lighting source into the coffers. The project utilized down light optics with both traditional and LED sources.
Studio Pei-Zhu, a Beijing-based firm, has designed a museum that will house the work of Yue Minjun, a Chinese contemporary artist known for his repetitive images of large, smiling figures.
“While the devastating Sichuan earthquake in May left a large portion of Western China in ruins, signs are emerging that some notable building projects in the area are pushing forward. One of these projects is the Art Museum of Yue Minjun, designed by Beijing-based Studio Pei-Zhu, a 2007 Design Vanguard winner.
Located near the Qingcheng Mountains, and adjacent to the Shimeng River in Sichuan Province, the 10,700-square-foot museum will house the work of Yue Minjun, a Chinese contemporary artist known for his repetitive images of large, smiling figures. It will be one of 10 new museums on the same site, each dedicated to the work of an influential Chinese artist. Zhang Xiaogang and Wang Guangyi are among the other artists to be showcased. The complex, which is being developed by the local government of Dujingyuan, is the brainchild of Lu Peng, an art professor at the China Central Academy of Fine Art.
Images courtesy Studio Pei-Zhu
The Yue Minjun museum will contain exhibition space and a small artist’s studio. According to Pei Zhu, one of the firm’s principals, a river rock that he picked up one day inspired the building’s form—a large, oblong sphere. “Everything is based on the natural stone, which has a very strong relationship between the creek and the mountain and nature,” explains Zhu.
Image courtesy Studio Pei-Zhu
On the exterior, curvilinear walls will be clad in highly polished zinc, a soft metal that blends in with the natural surroundings while also giving the building a futuristic look. “Normally, architects will use a local material and vernacular language,” says Zhu. “We believe we needed to make something both futuristic and very natural.” It’s a striking departure from another recent project designed by the firm for the 2008 Summer Olympics: Digital Beijing, a control center whose façade resembles computer circuitry.
Image courtesy Studio Pei-Zhu
Work is already underway on the art museum. Site preparation began earlier this year, and the building should be completed by early 2009. Zhu says the earthquake delayed the project a mere three months, at most. “The developer still really wants to push this project [forward],” he says, “and we think that this will still benefit the society and the city.”
CAFA Art Museum, located at the northeast corner of campus CAFA (China Central Academy of Fine Arts), is set from curvilinear walls covered with traditional Chinese slate.
The walls are separated at the ends to which natural light enters the building through skylights and large windows.
From the main entrance, located in the center of the building, access to a large atrium in height with long straight ramps that ascend gradually to the various floors of the museum. Natural light spreads throughout the museum through the membranes of fiberglass skylights.
The ground floor can accommodate large installations that can be seen from the different levels of the ramp. The permanent collection, focusing on traditional Chinese art, is located on the first floor galleries, temporary exhibitions in the second and third floors.
Large open spaces with natural light, curvilinear walls, allow many different kinds of contemporary art installations. The exhibition space on the third floor is open to the double volume of the second floor.
There are four floors above ground, two below ground. The library and cafeteria are located in the main space on the ground floor. Basement 1 includes a reading room, a study room and a conference room. 2 In the basement offices are located in conservation of paintings and calligraphy, including the restoration room, laboratory and warehouse of temporary and permanent collections. Technical equipment protected stairways and elevators are located in rectangular volumes, covered with marble.
Ningbo Historic Museum / Wang Shu, Amateur Architecture Studio
Organized by the Chengdu Ministry of Culture and the Chengdu Culture and Tourism Development Group, the Competition for the Chinese MoMA was part of an initiative for creating a double ring of public facilities around the Tianfu Square in Chengdu. The first ring is supposed to consist of cultural facilities. The second and larger one is planned for highrises.
Designed by Studio Ramoprimo, the winning entry proposes a dialogue with the surrounding, drawing physical references from the existing urban and architectural condition. The basic idea is to enlarge the existing public space of Tianfu Square and make it “climbing” on the roof of the new building. The new museum is a group of volumes creating a small cultural city.
Two main axis cut the site area defining a comfortable pedestrian island where people can walk away from cars. The new urban situation is also establishing new visual and physical connections between existing parts of the city. People can pass through the plot and easily come from the Tianfu square and reach the surrounding museums. The four museum blocks create an arising slope on which people can walk, seat, play, have a rest, enjoy the view to the central square like in a open public theater. The whole shape according the function is rising step by step from the earth to the sky, while the ending corner of the building replaces the original position of the ancient and forgotten city wall.
The Museum Of Contemporary Art & Planning Exhibition proposal is located at Futian District, Shenzhen’s most important central region for administration, business and culture. The building functions as part of Shenzhen’s civic centre, where the City Library, Opera House, Central Bookstore, Youth Activity Hall (YAH) and other civic building have been built. The international competition held in 2007 required The Museum Of Contemporary Art & Planning Exhibition (MOCAPE) to include two independent and yet inter-connected parts: The museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and Planning Exhibition (PE). Designed by Rome-based LABORATORIO 543, the proposal is a 90.000 square meter structure that aims to enhance the service of Shenzhen’s new civic center.
The building is divided into two parts: the first rests on the ground and the other is suspended on the upper level. These undulating segments have multiple connection points, ensuring the overall stability of the structure and facilitating communication between different programs. The structural frame, which is required to support the suspended level, can be compared to a cantilever. Located at ground level, the main entrance belongs to a composition of
Studio Pei-Zhu, a Beijing-based firm, has designed a museum that will house the work of Yue Minjun, a Chinese contemporary artist known for his repetitive images of large, smiling figures.
“While the devastating Sichuan earthquake in May left a large portion of Western China in ruins, signs are emerging that some notable building projects in the area are pushing forward. One of these projects is the Art Museum of Yue Minjun, designed by Beijing-based Studio Pei-Zhu, a 2007 Design Vanguard winner.
Located near the Qingcheng Mountains, and adjacent to the Shimeng River in Sichuan Province, the 10,700-square-foot museum will house the work of Yue Minjun, a Chinese contemporary artist known for his repetitive images of large, smiling figures. It will be one of 10 new museums on the same site, each dedicated to the work of an influential Chinese artist. Zhang Xiaogang and Wang Guangyi are among the other artists to be showcased. The complex, which is being developed by the local government of Dujingyuan, is the brainchild of Lu Peng, an art professor at the China Central Academy of Fine Art.
Images courtesy Studio Pei-Zhu
The Yue Minjun museum will contain exhibition space and a small artist’s studio. According to Pei Zhu, one of the firm’s principals, a river rock that he picked up one day inspired the building’s form—a large, oblong sphere. “Everything is based on the natural stone, which has a very strong relationship between the creek and the mountain and nature,” explains Zhu.
Beijing To Build “World’s Largest Art Museum”: What’ll They Fill It With?
This week, as part of its 12th five-year plan, Beijing announced a new phase for the National Art Museum of China, a massive, glass-covered structure that is being touted as “the world’s largest art gallery.” Currently in the design process, the new National Art Museum will be located next to the current museum and near the Beijing National Stadium, with construction expected to begin next spring.
Chinese Contemporary Art Getting Scarcer; Can Auctions Be Museums’ Only Source For Top Art?
Preliminary design for the National Art Museum of China new phase
This week, as part of its 12th five-year plan, Beijing announced a new phase for the National Art Museum of China, a massive, glass-covered structure that is being touted as “the world’s largest art gallery.” Currently in the design process, the new National Art Museum will be located next to the current museum and near the Beijing National Stadium, with construction expected to begin next spring. While the new National Art Museum sounds like another example of the Chinese government building a mammoth public venue for the sake of getting another “world’s largest” title under its belt, as museum director Fan Di’an told delegates at the recent National People’s Congress, China’s public art facilities haven’t lived up to the promise of the country’s burgeoning interest in the arts.
As Fan pointed out last week, the current National Art Museum — which was built in 1963 in Beijing’s Dongcheng district — is a meager 8,300 square meters in size. Compare that to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, at 58,529 square meters, and the Louvre, which boasts over 60,000 square meters of exhibition space. Since attendance became free at the National Art Museum on March 2, according to Fan Di’an, it has clocked nearly 6,000 visitors at peak times, “nearly hitting capacity,” according to Xinhua. Clearly, the current digs are inadequate, certainly for a city that most consider to be the cultural heart of China. But how will director Fan Di’an fill the 130,000 total square meters of exhibition space he’ll have when the new phase is complete?
One clue comes from an interview Fan Di’an recently gave at the “Art Power” awards in Beijing, where he was named “Best Museum Administrator.” Speaking to Sina, Fan said that the Chinese contemporary art world is becoming stronger as more artists become globally recognized, more curators have the ability to promote Chinese art, and more (and better) museums are built across the country. Fan’s interest in contemporary art and the priority he places on public arts education have made him something of a star in the Chinese art world, a break from the stereotype of the stodgy apparatchik or stuffy administrator. Fan also counts many first-generation Chinese contemporary artists as close friends, such as his former Central Academy of Fine Arts classmate Xu Bing. With the ample room he will be afforded with the new National Art Museum, expect to see Fan display an impressive array of contemporary Chinese works alongside his other interests, which include everything from 1950s Chinese prints to artifacts from Dunhuang in Xinjiang province.
With so much room to fill, not just in Beijing but in new provincial art museums throughout mainland China, it won’t be surprising if we see museum and gallery representatives showing up at the upcoming Sotheby’s spring auctions in Hong Kong, where works by some of China’s top artists will be on the block. Directors like Fan Di’an would almost certainly love to get some pieces from the Ullens collection on the walls and prevent them from leaving the country once and for all. Now that new Chinese private collectors are getting more involved with the auction market and works by blue-chip Chinese artists are getting scarcer and scarcer, it’s no surprise that excitement is growing in China for the upcoming spring auction season.
New Abstract Paintings: The Cosmos suite (2012)
Cosmos. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson
Cosmos Red Yellow Green. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson
Green God. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson
This new painting series is part of my ongoing exploration of painting materials and techniques from the history of painting. The works combine knowledge of painting practices of both abstract and representation paintings. The works concern themselves purely with the visual power that paintings can do through the manipulation of paint. Some of the underpaintings are allowed to dry for months; some of those are built dark to light, others light to dark. None are made in a single setting. Most are worked and reworked using studio materials. Each new series takes a different approach to the painted surface from how the paint is applied, to varying the painting mediums. This suite concerns itself with the layering of paint by building up the surface and altering and reworking the wet paint with studio tools.
Two larger paintings will be completed and photographed on Sunday, July 15, 2012 and posted here.
Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles
Vincent Johnson’s Nine Grayscale Paintings – installation shot – 2
Vincent Johnson’s Nine Grayscale Paintings – studio shot – 1 (Silver hand)
Vincent Johnson – in my studio working on my Nine Grayscale Paintings
Vincent Johnson’s Nine Grayscale Paintings – first stage of grayscale painting
Los Angeles based artist and writer Vincent Johnson
Vincent Johnson received his MFA from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California 1997 and his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in Painting 1986. He started out as a student in Pratt’s painting department. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was nominated for the Baum: An Emerging American Photographer’s Award in 2004 and for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 nominated for Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. In 2010 he was named a United States Artists project artist. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Art in America, Art Slant and many other publications. His photographic works were most recently shown in the inaugural Pulse Fair Los Angeles. His most recent paintings were shown at the Beacon Arts Center in Los Angeles.
Although everyone’s favorite dissident Ai Weiwei steals most of the headlines, China is home to an explosive contemporary art scene. Though as diverse as its billion-strong population, contemporary Chinese artists often grapple with convergence and upheaval, exploring the intersection of tradition and technology, Communism and Capitalism, and Eastern and Western styles. Here are the ten most popular on Artsy.
10. Zhu Jinshi: Influenced by German Expressionism (and a co-founder of the avant-garde Stars group along with Ai), Zhu produces abstract paintings whose surfaces are built up with thick, near-sculptural layers of oil paint.
9. Zhang Xiaogang: Best known for his “Bloodlines: The Big Family” series of the 1990s, Zhang draws on memory to paint portraits that fuse his personal history with the legacy of the Cultural Revolution.
8. Li Shan: A founding member of Political Pop, Li is best known for his Warholian portraits of Chairman Mao from the 1990s, as well as his more recent “biological art”—semi-abstract images of plants and animals.
7. Yang Fudong: A pioneering filmmaker known for his dreamy, ambiguous films, Yang also photographs staged tableaux that carry his signature surrealistic aesthetic.
6. Mao Yan: In his luminous, soft-toned oil portraits, Mao uses as few brushstrokes as possible in an effort to capture an essence rather than likeness. “Excessive attention to representation could only lead to narrow-mindedness,” he has said.
5. Xu Zhen: No stranger to controversy, Xu is notorious for The Starving of Sudan, a live tableau he constructed in a gallery that featured a live African toddler and a mechanized vulture. In more recent works he has explored Japanese BDSM culture.
4. Yue Minjun: Influenced early on by Surrealism, Yue is best known for inserting himself into canonical works from art history via grotesquely grinning, vibrantly exaggerated self-portraits.
3. Liu Xiaodong: Strongly influenced by Lucien Freud, Liu paints his intimate portraits spontaneously from snapshots of friends, family, and everyday life.
2. Zhang Huan: Perhaps China’s best-known conceptual artist, Zhang rose to prominence in the 1990s with his performances involving the masochistic treatment of his naked body. His works in sculpture and other mediums further explore his interest in the human form.
1. Zeng Fanzhi: Inspired by German Expressionism, world-renowned painter Zeng explores alienation and isolation through his references to historical figures and dark aspects of humanity (as in his famous “Meat” series), often rendered in grotesque exaggeration.
Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road London SE1 8XX, 27 Sep 2012
Art of Change
Art of Change
Review by Rebecca Newell
Since Ai Wei Wei’s detainment in 2011, the international arts community has been looking for a way to understand better the spirit of dissent and antagonistic non-traditionalism that seems to characterise contemporary Chinese art. In an attempt to locate these strands in a shifting socio-political climate, the Hayward Gallery and the Southbank Centre, ever keen to engage with transience and change in their artistic programme (I’m thinking here of the thematic festivals that form the backbone of the Centre’s annual offering), have opened the first major exhibition to focus solely on contemporary performance and installation art from China.
Work from nine contemporary artists active in the last two decades is presented together, to consider themes of process and on-going transformation in both a site-specific and general way. Site-specificity plays out in works that alter in appearance over time, or are interactive, volatile and ephemeral: the first work to confront the viewer is Xu Zhen’s ‘Untitled’ (2007), a selection of fitness machines that are operated by the viewer via an exertion-free remote control. Sun Yuan & Peng Yu’s leaning tower of human fat – ‘Civilisation Pillar’ (2001) – is constructed from siphoned-off fat, extracted during liposuction treatments. Liang Shaohi’s beautifully woven web constructions are co-authored by silk worms. Materially speaking, the space is unsound: a conservator’s nightmare.
But the work is profound and says something more general: vanity, and the nature and passage of time are not small artistic preoccupations. In fact, they are amongst the most trumpeted of the more familiar Western art-historical themes. Elsewhere, the works confront notions of wakefulness and sleep, the creative process and the participatory role of the art viewer. Even Zhen’s redundant gym equipment seems to address ‘wei wu wei’, or ‘action without action’, a fundamental principle in proverbial Chinese discourse, but it could easily be seen as commentary on the something-for-nothing culture we hear so much about.
Of the nine presented, most of the artists here are looking for new ways to express themselves as well as reconfigure materials and themes. It is obviously not irrelevant that China is a country undergoing dramatic transformation, and artists, as others, have been deeply affected by such change. The mid-1980s and 1990s brought with it a State rejection of much experimental art, and many of the avant-garde set that had been at the helm of a previously more open and progressive Chinese art scene left the country. For the Chinese contemporary artist that remained, it mattered less what the work looked like in the end, and more if and how they might get to finish a project. MadeIn Company, a creative corporation established by Xu Zhen, is a collective of artists, technicians and administrators that still operates in this way, embracing process and project over finish and presentation. The corporation is represented in the Hayward show by several on-going artworks. In ‘Revolution Castings’ (2012) concrete ‘memorials’ are cast on site and include contributions by visitors to the gallery. The on-going creation of an artwork is then the whole creative output, meaning the work deftly sidesteps the traditional mechanisms of both critique and the art market.
A middle space of three sleeping performers, for works entitled ‘Sleeping’ ‘In Between’ and ‘Patience’ (2004/2012), surprises. Each scenario involves interaction between the body, and white shelving fixed to the gallery walls. The artist, Yingmei Duan, explains that her concepts explore the fleeting visions experienced in the gap between wake and sleep, and that ‘sleep brings me many of my creative ideas’. The work seems to explore another threshold: that between socio-cultural acceptance and marginalisation. It could perhaps also be applied to the margin between comfort and discomfort in the viewer as they encounter a dreamscape slap bang in the middle of the contemporary gallery space.
The best work in the exhibition is Xu Zhen’s illusory ‘In Just a Blink of an Eye’ (2005/2012), the striking image of which is used for press and publicity materials produced by the Southbank for the show. In it, a person, dressed in what can be described as contemporary urban attire (all parka, tracksuit and canvas high-tops), appears suspended in mid-fall, no strings, no wires, no anything. Faced with this odd and transfixing work, social vanities and failings resound, and though they are often seen in a Western framework, they are here posed as an Eastern question. ‘The Starving of Sudan’ (2008), nearby, poses altogether different, and serious, questions about moral decline, human exploitation and the limits of voyeurism in the art gallery.
An interactive digital archive forms an axis for this exhibition, available for browsing or for in-depth study. Structured around a sequence of some 130 key events, exhibitions and performances, it aims to anchor contemporary Chinese art in a sweep of other cultural development and a broader context of artistic production. If a major aim of the curators of this show is to reposition such production in a framework that is understandable, rather than unintelligibly rooted in something ‘other’, for Western gallery goers, it does put the viewer back in control. As Xu Zhen points out, ‘people have to decide where they stand’.
It happened a long time ago, so we may have forgotten. The United States was initially cool towards France’s gift of the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of friendship between the two countries. In time, of course, “Miss Liberty” would become one of the icons of the American dream, the veritable symbol of that country of “all possibilities”, including free speech. Today, 125 years later, would China accept the gift of a Statue of Liberty after it destroyed the Tiananmen Statue of Democracy? A Chinese artist, newly released from prison, has offered his country two. As Brice Pedroletti reports from Beijing…
At the foot of a public housing building in the northern suburbs of Beijing, a sign announces the “Garden of Steel Roses”. To enter, you must squeeze between the fence and the wall of the building to reach a small space in front of a flat on the ground floor. Two giant busts stand on their bases. The first is of Lin Zhao. In the late 1950s, Lin protested in writing against the abuses of the anti-rights campaign, submitting a petition to the Great Helmsman himself in support of Peng Dehuai. (Peng, a plain-spoken Marshall of the People’s Liberation Army, had been imprisoned for criticizing the Great Leap Forward.) Lin Zhao’s protest earned the young woman a 20-year prison sentence in October 1960. On April 29, 1968, at the age 36, she was executed and her body was never found. The second bust is that of another young woman, Zhang Zhixin, executed in 1975 at the age of 40, another denouncer of Maoism. Both fervent Communists, the two women persisted in their criticism of Mao from their prison cells and to their last moments.
The painter Yan Zhengxue, 66, created this strange sculpture garden upon his own release from prison in late 2009. He sculpted, in his tiny apartment and in secret, these two statues of liberty based on photographs and testimonials from people who had known the women. The work was both therapy and tribute, Yan Zhengxue says. “I told myself that I was lucky to have survived. They were not,” he explains, sitting in his small living room, the walls covered with paintings in black ink. In 2006, Yan Zhengxue was sentenced to three years in prison for subversion. His crime: helping peasants of his native region, Zhejiang, near Taizhou, defend their land rights. It was not the first time that Yan had been locked up. To be exact, it was the 13th. In 1995, he had been sentenced to three years in a re-education camp for launching a lawsuit against Public Safety, which he turned into “performance art”. At the time, Yan Zhengxue was head of Yuanmingyuan Village, Beijing’s first artists’ community, which the authorities wanted to evacuate. The case caused an uproar in the Chinese media with cultural and artistic figures signing petitions in his support. Deported to the far north, Yan was tortured with electric prods by prison guards and seriously injured.
When he was arrested again in 2006, he warned the police that he would rather commit suicide than return to prison. Suicide would be “my final art performance,” he said, but the provincial authorities were unmoved. From his cell, Yan Zhengxue began writing the story of his life. A cell mate, a common criminal, helped smuggle out the manuscripts, tiny rolls of paper inserted into soap. “At the time, I thought that both the actions I had taken to defend human rights throughout my life and my artistic activity had come to an end. The curtain had fallen. The democracy movement in China was being torn apart by its differences. It was the war between the ‘sheep’ – moderates who advocated cooperation with the authoritiesand the ‘goats’ – advocates of a more active defence of rights, like the lawyer Gao Zhisheng, and the activists Guo Feixiong and Hu Jia (all imprisoned for their commitment to defending human rights). I considered myself as part of the ‘goat’ camp.”
Having completed his autobiography, “The (Art) Performance is Over”, Yan tried to put his suicide plan into action but failed. In any case, “Given my condition, doctors said that I had three months to live,” he says. The book manages to make its way to Hong Kong and is published by Sibixiang Editions. Upon Yan’s release in 2009, his publisher encourages him to do a project on Lin Zhao. Yan Zhengxue begins work on the sculptures of the two women who were less fortunate than himself. The creation of the statues is phantasmagoric. In January 2010, the convalescent painter goes to work in a small room of his apartment in Beijing. When the police make their rounds, Yan’s wife, also an artist, does calligraphy in the doorway to the room. “They suspected that I was creating something, but they didn’t know what or where,” says Yan Zhengxue. “They never imagined that such large statues could be hidden in a small room.” The moulds are taken in secret to a foundry in Hebei. The statues are set in Yan’s garden, as the district authorities forbid their transport for exhibition. The authorities regularly ask Yann to put the statues inside his apartment, but he holds firm. “I said that my apartment was too small. Then they asked me to put bed-sheets over them. I said that it would be disrespectful. Then they demanded clear plastic. I had to accept,” he says. On April 29, the anniversary of the death of Lin Zhao, visitors, on hand to honour her, tear off the plastic covers.
Since then, many people regularly visit the Garden of Steel Roses, including activists and figures of the pro-democracy movement. Given the heightened surveillance in this season of the Nobel Prize ceremony, the commemoration of Lin Zhao’s birthday on December 12 was scheduled for three days earlier. But Yan Zhengxue is picked up at dawn by agents, and carried around all day in their car. His dozen guests are not worried. For Lin Zhao has become an icon of the democracy movement, saved from the dustbin of history by the director Hu Jie’s 2004 documentary film, “Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul” wherein were revealed the secret letters, written in Lin’s own blood, to the man she loved.
The case of Zhang Zhixin, another executed young woman, has been made part of official propaganda. The Chinese government has “turned her into a martyr: through her example we repudiate the Cultural Revolution and non-Maoism” writes the historian Youqin Wang, a specialist in the Cultural Revolution at the University of Chicago. Yan Zhengxue’s project to donate the two statues of the young women to their alma maters, Peking University and Renmin University, is blocked, despite broad support within the two prestigious institutions. For the artist, the ghost of Maoism acts like a black sun. “The black sun absorbs the light. That’s what prevents the Chinese from getting democracy,” he says. A black sun sculpture hangs on the wall next to the statues. Yan also puts black suns in his paintings.
In 1965, while still an art student, Yan Zhengxue, quickly perceived the darkening atmosphere as the Cultural Revolution began. “We only had the right to paint cadavers,” he recalls. “Posing models was denounced as bourgeois.” The young man took to his heels, wandering to the far reaches of western China. He found himself in Xinjiang, in a collective farm where he began painting nature and animals. Noticing Yan’s talent, the director of the farm asks him to make a few portraits of Mao. As a reward, the painter is allowed to bring out his girlfriend and marry her. But the Cultural Revolution soon arrives as well. In 1968, the couple is in Lanzhou, in nearby Gansu. Yan receives the order to paint an eight-meter-tall portrait of Mao on the facade of the city’s civil aviation office. City managers have fled to this office, trying to escape the harassment of the Red Guards
Some of them criticize the profile of the great leader that Yan Zhengxue, perched on his scaffold, has begun to paint. An argument breaks out. The painter explains that he cannot start over, as he would have to cover Mao’s face with white paint. At this point, one of the Guards notices a cross that Yan has drawn on his drawing as a guide for reproducing it to scale. Yan Zhengxue is accused of being contra-revolutionary and arrested. He thinks it is a joke, but the flood of prisoners suggests otherwise. A peasant who carried a bust of Mao on a yoke. A Hong Kong man accused of homosexuality. A child who made a paper bird from a picture of Mao. Yan and the child escape summary execution. The interrogating officer confirms Yan’s story and orders his release. The artist later learns that a five-percent quota of executions had been set for the city. In this same year, 1965, Lin Zhao, who is languishing in a prison in Shanghai, is killed by a bullet in the head.
Conversations with leading cultural figures
— November 28, 2012 —
“And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” In the contemporary art lexicon, most would seem to like to ask this question of the multi-millionaire Zeng Fanzhi, an artist whose career began in 80s China…
“And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” In the contemporary art lexicon, most would seem to like to ask this question of the multi-millionaire Zeng Fanzhi, an artist whose career began in China in the 1980s with unsettling and often politically charged paintings. In Britain, we have a tendency to distrust any artist who has had a lucrative career (we are, after all, the founders of the build-them-up-to-knock-them-down school), and after a certain point editors and journalists tend to prefer to discuss an artist’s material wealth and lifestyle, rather than their creative output. However, it would be grossly unfair to take such a tawdry view of Zeng, whose current exhibition at Gagosian Britannia Street – his first on these shores – deals with mortality, sacrifice and reflection, proving beyond a doubt that he is not an artist in danger of selling his soul. Taking as its source material the story of Albrecht Dürer’s brother sacrificing his own artistic ambitions to allow Albrecht to go to school and learn to paint (the hard physical toil he undertook causing him to suffer arthritis in his hands), the show exhibits huge, fascinatingly detailed homages to Dürer – hands locked in prayer, an old man in deep contemplative meditation – and endlessly complex spider-like scenes of dense woodland, through which distant glimmers of light shine. AnOther took some time to talk to the strikingly composed, modest and self-effacing artist to find out why, despite his well-documented wealth, it is a simple, Buddhist-like spiritual communication he seeks to have with the world through his art production.
What concerns have carried through your career – what has remained the same and what is fundamentally different now? I think what remains unchanged is my pursuit of beauty.
What is your definition of beauty? I think everyone has their own definition of beauty, but as far as I’m concerned beauty means staying true to what touches you, whatever moves you and whatever brings up your feelings and emotions – this is my definition of beauty. Also, beauty is not just about being beautiful, it is about being everlasting. I experience a forward mobility of my inner mind and my inner state while I’m making these paintings.
There is an intense complexity of line in these works, are you fascinated by the minutiae of the world?
I am always very fascinated by delicate and micro-aspects of the world, and usually when I discover the beauty of these aspects I will amplify and multiply the effects of what I see into the paintings. This is why I make such huge paintings. I want to exaggerate and underscore the beauty of these delicacies and these minor aspects. I believe that many artists are moved by the micro-aspects of the world and this is what inspires them.
“As far as I’m concerned, beauty means staying true to what touches you, whatever moves you and whatever brings up your feelings and emotions…”
Is there any specific thing from your youth you can remember that inspired you to paint? I think I was influenced and inspired by many aspects but I couldn’t name a specific one. It was through a gradual process that I found myself gifted in art and painting. When I was young, life was so tough that it was difficult to think about one’s future. At the time, the most important thing was whether we could make ends meet and feed ourselves. I think before my 20s the most important thing to me was whether I could feed myself. Now, living in such a comfortable environment, I can, of course, discuss art, but it is still very difficult to do so – it is very difficult for me to talk about art. I’m better at communication with people and the world with my artwork than I am with language.
The lines in these works make me think of the lines on the palm, do you believe in predestination? I believe more and more in the notion of fate and how what we call chance plays a role in that. I have begun to believe that there is a predestined life for everyone, and sometimes I feel like it is by fate that I was guided in a certain direction, instead of me choosing one direction initially and of my own volition. I believe that sometimes even though I make a plan there may be other changes that will overtake the plan completely – sometimes a very minor aspect can change the whole plan.
What is the most important thing for you in terms of your legacy? Do you think in terms of leaving a legacy as an artist? Admittedly, all artists want their work to be immortal and everlasting, and I hope that my work can be appreciated when I’m deceased. I hope that when people look at my work they can find something new, and they can find something they wanted to see within the paintings; the things they are looking for. However, I think in terms of the word legacy, I would say it is important to leave a spiritual legacy to the world instead of a materialistic one.
How has fame affected you, and have the projections of ‘the most important artist in the world’ and so on made it more difficult to create art? No. I am secluded from the world when I go to my workshop in Bejing, and as soon as I close the door and am in the workshop on my own, I feel secluded and am able to focus on my creation. If you ever come to Bejing and my workshop and have a chance to see how my life is lived, you will notice such a situation.
Zeng Fanzhi is at Gagosian, Britannia Street, until January 19 2013.
Text by John-Paul Pryor
John-Paul Pryor is European Editor at Flaunt Magazine, Editor-at-large at Port Magazine and Editor, Contributing Art Editor to AnOther Magazine and Art Director at Topman Generation. He writes for Flaunt, Dazed & Confused, Port,Tank, AnOther, Nowness and directs fashion shoots for Topman Generation. His debut novel Spectacles is out now.
Zeng Fanzhi’s aesthetic restlessness epitomizes the evolution of Chinese contemporary art in the post-1989 era, grappling with local history and tradition in the face of external influence and accelerated change. Since the beginning of his career, he has presented a succession of powerfully introspective subjects, from the haunting Hospital paintings to the visceral Meat paintings that juxtapose human subjects with butchered flesh; from the enigmatic Mask paintings to candid and startling close-up portraits; from intimate, existential still-lifes to depictions of pivotal Western cultural figures such as Francis Bacon, whose psychic portraits altered the status of the human figure in twentieth century art. Charged with an underlying psychological tension, Zeng’s oeuvre reveals the place of the unconscious and the aberrant in the construction of human experience.
For the past decade, landscape has been a central focus of Zeng’s art. In highly tactile scenes, the details of representation often overlap seamlessly with qualities of abstraction, as in certain traditional Chinese aesthetic objects. Zeng’s fictitious place is at once luminous and bleak, where unearthly bursts of vivid color are trapped in snaking brambles that obstruct yet hold the gaze.
The artist says: “They are not real landscapes. They are rather about an experience of miao wu [marvellous revelation]. Miao wu constitutes a restless journey of discovery.”
November 29th, 2012 – January 19th, 2013
6-24 Britannia Street
London WC1X 9JD
ARTIST ZHANG HUAN
NEW YORK TIMES
A Hallucinatory Blaze, via Tibetan Ritual
Zhang Huan’s Colorful Skull Paintings at the Pace Gallery
Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery
The Poppy Route: The artist Zhang Huan paints vibrant skulls in a new solo show at Pace Gallery.
By BARBARA POLLACK
Published: September 12, 2013
Damien Hirst once encrusted a skull with diamonds, and Takashi Murakami has turned out canvases with cartoon versions of skulls. But when the artist Zhang Huan addresses similar iconography, he creates paintings in a style all their own. Sitting in his Shanghai studio one day recently amid dozens of Tibetan death masks, he was busy preparing for the opening on Friday of “Poppy Fields,” an exhibition of new works at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea.
“½ (Meat + Text),” a chromogenic color print from 1998.
“Poppy Fields” is a fresh direction for an artist whose studio is much like a factory, with over 100 assistants churning out monumental copper sculptures of Buddhas, paintings made of ash collected at temples, doors carved with scenes from the Cultural Revolution, stainless-steel pandas, stuffed cows and horses and, on one occasion, a version of a Handel opera. His notion is that he can produce anything he imagines without regard for consistency.
“Unlike Western masters, who will stick with one style their entire life until they reach maturity, I am in a constant state of transformation,” said Mr. Zhang, interviewed via Skype with the aid of a translator. “I am constantly abandoning old things for new ones, but there is always a thread behind these changes, and that is my DNA.”
His latest transformation may be the biggest one to date: turning himself into an oil painter with a keen sense of color after a career that has so far been mostly black, white and gray. The new “Poppy Field” works are a striking departure, for example, from those shown in a retrospective at Asia Society in 2007, two years after he moved back to China after almost a decade in New York.
In the new paintings, the canvas’s surface is covered with hundreds of skulls modeled after Tibetan masks that look like grinning faces with bulging eyes and Cheshire cat smiles. From a distance, the canvases blur into misty fields of color, in white, pink and blue in one instance, and black, red and gold in another. Yet up close, you can see each face in the crowd, as if zooming into a packed stadium from outer space. “The paintings represent the hallucination of happiness and the hallucination of fear and loneliness in this life as well as the hallucination of happiness in the next life,” Mr. Zhang said.
Asked about his bright hues, he said, “If there’s no color in your hallucination, it won’t be heaven. It would be hell.”
Arne Glimcher, Pace’s founder, recalls a conversation two years ago in which Mr. Zhang told him that he was working on oil paintings. “I thought it was such a conventional medium for him,” he said. “But he told me, ‘I will make oil paintings that look different from any other oil paintings.’ ”
It was nearly as big a surprise as when Mr. Glimcher first visited the artist’s Shanghai studio in 2006. Mr. Zhang was primarily known then for his visceral performances of the late 1990s, first in the bohemian enclave of Beijing East Village and later, in museums around the United States. (One of his better-known works required him to sit motionless in a public latrine for 10 hours, covered in fish oil and honey, as flies gathered on his body.)
Mr. Glimcher was astounded to discover the scale of Mr. Zhang’s production line in a studio teeming with sculptures, paintings and installations. This time around, he was equally surprised that the artist could pull off the new paintings with minimal support from his assistants.
According to the dealer, Mr. Zhang started each work by creating a computer drawing, planning out the placement of each mask. Given that approach, the paintings look remarkably spontaneous, as if they had evolved organically.
Buddhism and death rituals have been abiding subjects for Mr. Zhang, who was ordained as a Buddhist monk eight years ago. During the antireligious oppression of the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Zhang, born in 1965, remembers watching his grandmother go to the temple and burn incense before a statue of a Buddha. In his adulthood, he went regularly to temples; even after moving to New York in 1998, he studied every weekend with the venerated monk Sheng Yen at the Dharma Drum Mountain Center in Queens and later donated statues to the Chuang Yen Monastery, designed by I. M. Pei, in Kent, N.Y.
In her catalog essay for “Altered States,” the 2007 retrospective at Asia Society, Melissa Chiu, the museum’s director, wrote, “Zhang Huan’s works from the past 15 years reflect one artist’s search for an artistic voice, first in Beijing, then in New York, and finally in Shanghai.”
Mr. Zhang has placed “a progressive emphasis on Chinese sources with which he finds great inspiration in the shared memory of symbols, stories, and materials of his homeland,” she noted. Yet it is his embrace of Tibetan Buddhism, a rare choice in Chinese contemporary art, that distinguishes him from other artists.
In 2005, a trip to Tibet irrevocably altered Mr. Zhang’s thinking and his art making. “One day in Lhasa, I got up at 4 a.m. and went to the Jokhang Temple, the biggest one in Tibet, and I saw men and women already lining up for miles,” Mr. Zhang said. He said he was amazed by the sight of pilgrims crawling to the site in the middle of traffic, in a seeming clash between modernity and ancient tradition. “I have been to the most famous museums in the world, and I have never seen a sight as striking as this,” he said.
He also witnessed the Tibetan Sky burial, in which a monk eviscerates the human corpse, leaving the flesh as food for vultures and smashing the bones into a grainy dust. The process is supposed to liberate the spirit from the body for peaceful transport into the next life. “Most people, when they see this ceremony, think it is gross and they cannot bear to watch,” Mr. Zhang said. “But, when I watch the ceremony, I feel this hallucination of happiness, and I feel free.”
He promises that at his death, the ritual will constitute his last performance piece.
Asked whether Americans would understand his “Poppy Field” paintings, Mr. Zhang said: “If they are alive, they will love these works. But if they are dead, they will buy them.”
A version of this article appears in print on September 15, 2013, on page AR19 of the New York edition with the headline: A Hallucinatory Blaze, via Tibetan Ritual.
12M2, 1994, documentation of a 40-minute performance. In the height of midsummer heat, the artist covered himself in honey and fish oil and sat unmoving in a public latrine in Beijing’s East Village, allowing swarms of flies to crawl all over his body.
TO RAISE THE WATER LEVEL IN A FISH POND, 1997, documentation of a performance, in which the artist and 40 participants stood in a pond to raise the water level by a meter.
FAMILY TREE, 2000, documentation of a performance staged in New York, in which three calligraphers wrote Chinese proverbs on the artist’s face over the course of a day.
ART ASIA PACIFIC
Outside China, few artists are as synonymous with the rise of contemporary Chinese art as Zhang Huan. With his career having taken him from Anyang in his native Henan province to Beijing, New York and Shanghai—transforming him from a pessimistic iconoclast in the early 1990s to a Newsweek cover boy in 2004—and his practice ranging from oil painting to performance, photography, sculpture, installation and, most recently, set design, it is difficult to pin down consistent themes in his work. Though his career began with visceral performances staged in self-exile from the predominant trends of China’s cultural institutions, his rise to fame coincided with commercial and geopolitical shifts that have softened the intensity of his approach.
Much of the writing about Zhang begins the narrative of his career with his involvement with the Beijing East Village artist community in the early 1990s, where he and a handful of other artists and poets collaborated on a short-lived flurry of challenging performances that have since become a storied chapter in China’s history of contemporary art. Yet Zhang’s beginnings as an artist had taken root before his arrival in the East Village. Born in 1965 into a family of workers, Zhang developed an early interest in the arts. He entered Henan University in 1984, where he was a classical enthusiast who identified with the romanticism of the 19th-century French painter Jean-François Millet, whose work depicts the life of peasant farmers; Zhang’s admiration perhaps stemmed from his own rural upbringing. His graduation piece was a painting entitled Red Cherries (1988), which portrayed a mother peacefully nursing her baby next to a bowl of cherries. After concluding his studies, he remained at Henan University, teaching for four years in the art department.
Zhang arrived in Beijing in 1991 for a two-year program of advanced training at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), one of the country’s most prestigious institutions, whose program he was attracted to for its emphasis on European classical tradition. When he moved into Dashanzhuang—the ramshackle collection of some 65 farmhouses bordering a garbage dump that came to be known as the East Village two years later—there was very little in the fabric of his life that might have predicted the violence and masochism of the performance work that was to establish his career. In interviews, Zhang has described seeing Tseng Kwong-Chi’s performance photographs—portraying the artist in famous sites all over the world—in the CAFA library, but that otherwise he had minimal contact with experimental art.
The genesis of Zhang’s career as a performance artist can be traced to Weeping Angels (1993),his unannounced contribution to a showcase of advanced works by the 13 students in his CAFA class at the National Art Museum of China, all of whom had contributed to the exhibition hall’s rental fee by pooling their meager finances. Five minutes before the exhibition’s opening, Zhang stood on a white sheet laid at the venue’s entrance, dressed only in his underwear, and poured a jar of red paint over his body. He then kneeled to pick up an assortment of plastic baby doll parts, which he reassembled into a complete child before heading into the exhibition hall where he tied the doll to a rope. Critics have interpreted the performance as a protest against various forms of state-inflicted violence, from forced abortions to the traumas of modern Chinese history. Zhang’s intervention caused the museum staff to shut down the exhibition (although it should be noted that submissions from two fellow artists, Ma Baozhong and Wang Shihua, had been rejected before the opening), and earned him the indignation of his student peers, most of whom had little interest in experimental art.
Just a few days later, Zhang met and posed for Rong Rong, the Fujianese photographer whose documentation of and eventual collaboration with Zhang during his early performances have played an essential and often uncredited role in cementing Zhang’s reputation. Like Zhang, Rong Rong had moved to Beijing from the provinces to pursue his craft, and in Dashanzhuang the burgeoning clique came to share a camaraderie born of the common squalor of their living conditions and a sense of exile, rejecting not only the mainstream but also Beijing’s Yuanmingyuan artist colony, where other artists had taken up residence.
The East Village cast of characters quickly came to include Ai Weiwei, who had just returned to Beijing in 1993 after living in the United States for just over a decade. At the time, Ai’s own practice was still emerging, yet to Zhang and the East Villagers, his interest in their work was immensely validating. Ai was admired for many reasons: for being the son of Ai Qing (1910–1996), the poet whose fame made him a household name in China; for his involvement with the Stars, widely considered the first avant-garde art collective in China; for his time in New York, where he hobnobbed with Chinese and American intelligentsia alike; and for his sage and contemplative poise. On June 2, 1994, Zhang performed 12m2, which remains perhaps the most iconic performance of his career. He would later describe it to Rong Rong as a tribute to Ai, who was made to clean filthy public toilets as a child during his father’s exile in the western Xinjiang autonomous region.
Zhang’s execution of 12m2 sparked off the string of performances for which the East Village is best known. The images that survive today are largely Rong Rong’s documentation of the event, a performance for only a handful of people that has since become legendary: naked and slathered in honey and fish oil, Zhang sat stationary in a festering public latrine during the height of the Beijing summer, unflinching as flies flocked to his body. “The worst was watching flies trying to get into his ears,” wrote Rong Rong, describing the stench and silence of the intervention. “All I could remember was the noise of the flies and the sound of the shutter lens. . . I felt that I couldn’t breathe, it felt like the end of life.”
Zhang’s own statement of the event was later published in Ai Weiwei’s agenda-setting avant-garde journal of contemporary art in China, Black Cover Book (1994).Edited with artist Xu Bing and curator Feng Boyi, the book featured Zhang’s performance among a selection of others. “The creative inspiration for my work comes from the most ordinary, easily overlooked aspects of life,” wrote Zhang. “For example, we eat, work, rest and shit everyday—the banal aspects of quotidian existence that allow us to observe the most essential aspects of humanity, and the conflicting relationships within our environment.”
Most art-historical accounts of the performance include Zhang’s emergence from the toilet, from where he walked into a nearby pond until fully submerged, the flies on his skin drowning on the water’s surface—a powerful and cathartic gesture of closure. Yet Zhang’s original statement detailing the specificsof the event does not include walking into the pond, and the water coda exists today only because Rong Rong’s gaze followed.
Although separated from 12m2 by only a few days, Zhang’s next performance, 65 KG (1994), articulated a shift from corporeal concerns to a more metaphysical confrontation with death. Naming the work after his own body weight, Zhang suspended himself with chains—naked and facing the floor—from the ceiling of an East Village home, where he had three doctors from a nearby hospital insert a plastic tube into one of his veins, allowing his blood to splatter and burn on a hot-plate on the ground below. In addition to the East Village artist community, a wider group of art critics and photojournalists had been invited. The visceral effect of the hour-long performance was overwhelming, the smell of burnt blood mingling with Zhang’s dripping sweat caused several audience members to pass out.
Zhang performed 65 KG the same weekend as part two of Ma Liuming’s Fen-Ma Liuming’s Lunch. Ma began by cooking fish in front of an audience, but instead of eating it, he attached a long plastic hose to his penis, then sucked and blew through the other end. Both of these nude performances shocked what was otherwise a small community of migrant workers. The fallout from the weekend was severe, and the police arrested Ma and forced others, including Rong Rong and Zhang, to abandon their modest homes and go into hiding. A brutal anonymous attack the day before the 45th anniversary of the state on October 1 put Zhang in hospital with head injuries, and when the shaken East Village community re-emerged months later, its members settled in various locations across the city. But although this marked the end of the two-year existence of the East Village in its Dashanzhuang incarnation, the community grew as word of its experimental practices reached similarly invested ears elsewhere in Beijing.
ZHANG HUAN performing Pilgrimage: Wind and Water for “Inside Out: New Chinese Art,” at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York, 1998.
MY NEW YORK, 2002, documentation of a performance, in which the artist wore a suit of raw meat and walked the streets of New York, handing white doves to onlookers.
SEMELE, 2009, still from a rehearsal for Zhang’s production of the 1743 opera by Handel, depicting a scene in which sumo wrestlers compete and yet fall in love.
Despite the setback, Zhang continued his confrontation of death in his contribution to the group performance Original Sound (1995),a collaboration between 12 artists—including Ma Liuming, Rong Rong, Cang Xin, Wang Shihua, Curse, Song Dong and Zhu Fadong—in which each contributed an individual performance in an attempt to embody primordial sounds. Zhang emerged naked on the side of a slow highway in the middle of the night, laughing hysterically. Standing up and falling down until he reached the edge of the road, he jumped down into a corner beneath the highway, where he stuffed handfuls of earthworms into his mouth, and then lay motionless on the ground, allowing them to crawl out before he finally turned over on his side and sobbed.
If 65 KG was an escalation of the confrontation with mortality that Zhang had begun in 12m2, his performance in Original Sound embodied a sense of hysteria provoked by the prospect of death and articulated the physical decay that ensues. He was only shaken from this line of morbid inquiry when complications surrounding his preparations for a performance entitled Cage(1996)resulted in a terrifying experience that served to confirm his lust for life: while practicing for the performance, in which Zhang was to ride around Beijing’s subway system in a human-sized metal box with only a small window on its side, Zhang accidentally locked himself inside the container. In a statement in Rong Rong’s East Village 1993–1998 (2003), a photo documentation of the community, Zhang describes his elation after being released from the container: “After I finally walked out of the box . . . I felt that I had experienced a state between life and death . . . Nothing is more precious than being alive. This scary metal box—I will never go near it.”
As the output of the East Village artists grew, the authorial voices of individual artists became stronger and more identifiable, contributing to performances in greater and more independent capacities. Zhangcontinued to make collaborative works, such as To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (1995), in which he and nine other East Village artists gathered on Miaofeng Mountain on the outskirts of Beijing and stacked their naked bodies on top of each other with the aim of adding a meter to the mountain’s height. Later that day they staged Nine Holes (1995), with the men lying prostrate with their penises inserted into holes that they dug in the ground while the women aligned their vaginas with earthy protrusions. But Zhang’s appetite for pursuing projects as an independent authorial voice was growing. In 1997, he realized his first commission abroad, at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, where he staged 3,006 Cubic Meters/65 KG, an attempt to pull down the museum using a system of plastic tubes running from his body to the building’s exterior. Where the authorship of To Add One Meter has subsequently been disputed by its participant artists, the equally iconic performance To Raise the Water Level in a Fish Pond (1997), in which Zhang and more than 40 men entered a pond in an attempt to displace the water by one meter, stands largely as an epilog to this brief period of collaborative works. By this time, it seems Zhang had learned how to protect the sovereignty of his work—he hired migrant workers to enter the pond instead of collaborating with his peers.
Perhaps because tales of New York loomed large in the consciousness of an artist community named after one of its neighborhoods, or perhaps because it offered greater financial opportunities than China’s still-nascent gallery scene, Zhang moved to the United States in 1998, catching the tail end of a precedent set not only by Ai Weiwei, who moved to the US in 1981, but also Gu Wenda (1987), Xu Bing (1990) and Cai Guo-Qiang (1995). In New York, Zhang quickly fell into a schedule of performances and commissions from top cultural institutions, due partly to the reputation he had built in China, as well as the changing appetite of a cultural establishment that was beginning to look outside its own context for artistic talent.
Zhang began to incorporate explicitly Chinese objects in his performances, such as in Pilgrimage – Wind and Water, his first major work in the city, staged at P.S.1 in 1998 for the Asia Society exhibition “Inside Out: New Chinese Art.” Lying on a sheet of ice placed on a traditional wooden Chinese bed, Zhang attempted to instantiate the cultural shock he felt upon arriving in the city. With nine pedigree dogs of different breeds tethered to the bed, the performance presented a stark contrast between the pampered animals and Zhang’s discomfort as he attempted “to feel [the fear and culture shock] with my body, just as I feel the ice.”
Over the next few years, the focus of Zhang’s works began to shift from internal matters of the body to external matters of culture and state. In a similar vein to Pilgrimage, the artist’s performance of My America (Hard to Acclimatize) registered hisdiscomfort, even humiliation, with the difficulties of assimilating into the US.Staged at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in 1999, he had 56 naked American volunteers stand in tiered rows on a scaffold and throw stale bread at him. However, by 2002, Zhang was assimilated enough to strike a nerve among American audiences with My New York, a post-9/11 performance for the Whitney Biennial, in which he walked through the streets of Manhattan in a bodysuit made of raw meat—shaped to make him resemble a Hulk-like superhero—handing out white doves to onlookers who then released them in an immediate evocation of the US as a superpower. In a reference to the US bodybuilding culture, he struggled under the weight of his raw musculature in a false display of strength that spoke to the geopolitical and psychological anxieties of the time.
Zhang’s exhibition schedule began taking him to increasingly remote cultural contexts and institutions in Europe and the Asia- Pacific region, and the focus of his performances became more scattered. In My Rome (2005), he bafflingly climbed around a white marble statue, while in Seeds of Hamburg(2002)the artist appeared in a large, square birdcage at Der Kunstverein, naked and covered in honey and sunflower seeds. Seeds of Hamburg was reminiscent of 12m2—this time, the concoction he wore was designed to encourage 28 doves and pigeons to peck at his body—and yet the performance had none of the socio-political relevance or raw intensity of the earlier work in the East Village latrine.
But Zhang was increasingly working less with performance and more with material forms of art practice, and often in mediums such as installation and printmaking. The transition is most clearly illustrated in works such as Family Tree (2000), in which he invited three calligraphers to write proverbs and fables in Chinese ink on his face until it was completely covered, obscuring his features in an attempt to invoke his own anonymity that was nonetheless clearly evocative of the use of blackface makeup in 19th- and 20th-century US theater and television. The work was not staged as a performance event complete with an audience, but instead for the camera, and it exists as a limited-edition series of prints of which Zhang is the sole author. In keeping with the performative but not collaborative spirit of his early works, Zhang has defined these working methods as “performance-based concept photographs.”
By 2006, both Zhang’s practice and ambitions outgrew the US, and he moved to Shanghai, a city he had only visited once before. In its southern suburbs, he set up a massive, highly departmentalized studio, occupying 75 acres, where he employs more than 60 assistants. There, he oversees the fabrication of a wide variety of large-scale works, such as monumental installations of animal skins, sculptures in copper and paintings made of the ash from burned incense, depicting everything from anonymous flags rippling in the breeze to fashion designer Christian Dior “in the comfort of his country home,” as was explained on the wall text at an exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing in 2008. The studio is prolific, fabricating works in media with which Zhang had never previously worked, a reflection perhaps of the boundless opportunity and cheap labor and material offered in his home country, itself now a rising superpower.
Zhang’s return to China, however, is by no means a rejection of his relationship with the US, as he continues to mount ambitious shows in New York, as well as in Europe. Increasingly, Zhang has turned to Buddhist themes, such as in his giant sculptural series of fragments of the Buddha’s body re-created in ash and copper. He is also currently engaged as the director and set designer of an experimental production of Händel’s 1743 opera Semele, which premiered in September at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels and is due to travel to China in 2010. Despite the apparent lack of congruity—Semele is a comedy based on an ancient Greek tale of deities and adultery—Zhang says he is intrigued by the plot’s relation to Buddhist ideas of reincarnation and karma.
To many of Zhang’s East Village peers, the changes in the tone of his work have been stark and even disappointing. But to Zhang, it is a question of developing expertise and savvy. In a catalog essay for his major retrospective at the Asia Society in 2007, he wrote, “At the time, I was simple and naive; my only goal was to realize the performance. Afterward, I signed contracts with photographers and videographers for every performance piece . . . I believe that my experience is a good example for my colleagues and younger artists to be more professional.” Zhang’s involvement with Semelelooks to sustain a performative element in his work, even if he is not the protagonist, and yet his original stake in the presence and simplicity of his own body as a medium for direct action appears to have been lost.
Poppy Field No. 12, 2012, detail (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)
Zhang Huan’s new exhibition at Pace Gallery, his first since 2010, revels in the artist’s newfound love of lush dollops of creamy oil paint. He’s not the first one to slather on thick and buttery pigment, but his Poppy Field canvases evoke an abstract impressionistic feel; the effect is akin to Pointillism gone wild. Viewed from a distance, they break down like molecules into the sum of their atomic parts.
Huan’s palette ranges from black and white to hues of grey, or a riotous festival of clashing colors. It’s astounding that according to his dealer the layout of these images was originally computer generated, as they appear spontaneous and unforced. Viewed up close the pointillist dots transform into arcane adamantine grins of the Chitipati (Lords of the Funeral Pyre), skeleton dancers common throughout the sacred Tibetan cham practice and various other aspects of folk dance. This choice of content emphasizes his fascination with aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the practices of “sky burial” and chöd, wherein skeletons and skeleton faces figure prominently.
Poppy Field No. 14, 2011 viewed from a human scale
Repetition is an undercurrent in these paintings. It’s not the same as the repetition employed in Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1970s, but the structural elements of another Tibetan art, that of the minutia of sand mandalas.
Huan, a member of the East Village artists’ community in Beijing, was originally known for his ascetic, monk-like piece “12 Square Meters,” where he sat in an outhouse slathered in honey attracting and retaining flies all over his naked body. More recently, in an interview with Pernilla Holmes, Huan stated he became a Ju Shi or “householder” Buddhist about eight years ago receiving the name ci ren’ or Sky Human. He has also studied Chán Buddhism, the Chinese precursor to Zen, with Master Sheng Yen in Queens, New York.
Detail of Poppy Field No. 14 from above
It is uncommon but not unknown for Chinese contemporary artists to incorporate aspects of tantric Tibetan Buddhism in their work. Those who do rarely achieve the fame or access to the West that Huan enjoys. Its a theme he has been exploring for decades, and includes his 2002 Whitney Biennial performance piece “My New York” where he strode through the city in a raw meat suit (before Lady Gaga poached the idea), and “Pilgrimage—Wind And Water In New York” his 1998 performance at PS 1 where he enacted the traditional Tibetan full-body-prostrations, or ngondro, before stripping naked and laying facedown on a block of ice surrounded by a cluster of yapping pet dogs.
Huan has jumped into the discipline of oil painting in a refreshing, and for him, sensuous style. He has softened his hard-fought austerity the only way an artist really knows how, by working it out through his art. Along the way he has reinvigorated a medium, avoided imitating his predecessors, and stuck close to his roots.
Zhang Huan’s Poppy Fields continues at Pace Gallery (534 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 26th.
Chinese painter Liu Xiaodong built a reputation among Chinese collectors by using Soviet-style realist techniques to portray the effects of China’s industrialization on its citizenry, most notably in his 2006 “Three Gorges” series.
But to win over Western collectors at his first solo show in the U.K., Mr. Liu opted for subtle depictions of two sometimes thorny topics: immigration and pub life.
Liu Xiaodong’s ‘Green Pub’ (2013) is part of his solo show at London’s Lisson Gallery. Liu Xiaodong/Lisson Gallery, London
“Half Street,” his debut show at Lisson Gallery that opened Sept. 27 and ends Nov. 2, features three oil paintings and 24 photos altered with acrylic paint that portray two English pubs, an Egyptian restaurant and the locales’ occupants, many of them immigrants. Mr. Liu chose the sites for their unpretentiousness: “I don’t like painting extravagant places.”
Not all went according to plan. At his chosen Egyptian restaurant, an irate imam told him to delete photos he had taken for his painting, an event he details in his diary on display at Lisson.
“There are all these Middle Easterners living, existing and facing contemporary life in London, and it’s difficult” for them, Mr. Liu said in an interview. So instead of customers, Mr. Liu depicted empty chairs and a table.
Mr. Liu’s works are coveted by elite financiers in China. At Chinese auctions, his prices exceed $2 million. The paintings in the show run around $500,000, and the photos—”a new species of works,” said Lisson dealer Greg Hilty—are around $15,000.
For “White Pub,” Mr. Liu painted French chef Sebastién Lambot, his Polish wife and his toddler, who posed for four hours. “I started snoozing. There was nothing to do,” Mr. Lambot said. But he added, “I want to take my baby to the Tate one day, point at the painting and say ‘Look, that’s you when you were young.'”
On the face of it, Liu Xiaodong’s latest exhibition at the Lisson Gallery in London reinforces usual descriptions of the artist’s work as ‘realist’. At the exhibition’s core is a series of large-scale paintings depicting the interiors of two public houses and a restaurant that have been rendered with a distinctly under-idealising eye for detail.
In one painting a large dog slumps over a bar counter while its presumed owners stand in attendance, dressed in stained chef ’s whites and scruffy summer working casuals. In another, an oriental style interior, uncannily empty of people, is represented; its kitschy petrolite surfaces and serpentine decorations contrasting with the sentinel presence of two starkly black, symmetrically counterposed electric fans.
Liu’s work is open to differing socio-cultural perspectives
In yet another, a vampirically grey-skinned and sclerotic-eyed couple, again dressed in working clothes, preside bathetically over a pub interior in which a young child at play on a roughly boarded wooden floor seeks to return our gaze.
For those familiar with the urban interiors of London this is the instantly recognisable territory of the quick (or not so quick) after-work drink and the drunkenly impulsive late night curry or kebab – a world of intensely cosmopolitan babble and conversational telegraphings of almost certainly exaggerated urban professional lifestyles. Impressively, Liu has the visual semiotics of this intensely mixed-up gentrified ‘spit and sawdust’ world down more or less pat.
Liu’s capacity to render the ripped backside of London life in such apparently knowing detail was aided not only by the artist’s now well-established method of painting in situ, but also by his interacting actively with the individuals and communities he depicts. This signature approach no doubt enables Liu to gain far greater insights into the significance of the social milieus into which he enters than any amount of anonymous sketching or photograph taking.
It is also one well in tune with the persistence of realism as a dominant aesthetic within the mainstream (officially supported) artworld of Liu’s home territory – the People’s Republic of China – where he is a professor at Beijing’s prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts. That aesthetic was self-consciously adopted during the early twentieth century as a culturally distinct framework for the development of a socially inclined and progressive modern art.
Yet Liu’s actively engaged approach also allows his work to be aligned with the current international fashion for an art of social intervention and relationality. That sense of relationality is further supplemented by conspicuously unfinished passages throughout Liu’s painting , passages that are left as metaphorical invitations to the viewer to ‘complete’ the work.
As is the artist’s sometimes visually disjunctive use of multiple panels as part of the making of a single image, both of which suggest a contemporary ‘conceptual’ re-motivation of conventional realist techniques (a reading that Liu himself actively resists).
In short Liu’s work is open to differing socio-cultural perspectives: including one that enables him to work successfully within the prevailing socio-political conditions of the PRC and another conferring critical credibility within western(ised) contexts.
Like other contemporary ‘realist’ artists from China, a searching understanding of the multiple significances of Liu’s work lies beyond a single gallery visit. Liu’s current and highly engaging exhibition at the Lisson Gallery is, though, a very good place to start.
This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of ArtReview Asia
For decades celebrated painter Liu Xiaodong has been searching for new ways to broaden the scope of his work beyond the confines of the two-dimensional canvas. In the 1990s Liu painted scenes of his family and friends, becoming a leading figure in a generation of Chinese painters which was interested in producing intimate depictions of the day-to-day reality of their immediate surroundings. Their perspective was not necessarily ideological; they neither glorified the working class and the peasants – as some revolutionary realist painters once did – nor approached their subject with condescension, guilt or curiosity borne out of class difference. They sought objectivity; their depictions were lively and contagious, sometimes focusing on the individual but often in a way that was relevant to the lives of most Chinese people. Liu’s 1996 painting Disobeying the Rules, for example, shows a group of naked workers crowded onto the back of an open-topped truck together with several large gas canisters. Most of them turn their faces towards the viewer, grinning. When I first saw the painting, I could almost feel the familiar sensation of a van rumbling past me on the road.
Since then, Liu has continued to turn his gaze towards those pushed to the margins of society: migrants, sex workers or residents displaced or made homeless by the Three Gorges Dam project. He has often painted them from life, a strategy interpreted by some critics as a conceptual ploy and by others as evidence of an emotional commitment. In many of these paintings his subjects appear indifferent and unengaged, perhaps all too conscious of the social problems he seeks to portray through their presence, and therefore take on an image of ‘otherness’.
Liu’s latest project, Hometown Boy (2010), which was also the title of his exhibition at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, brought these two interests together. Last year the artist spent two months in his home town of Jincheng, a small city in the Liaoning Province of north-eastern China, which he left in 1980 to attend art school in Beijing. Liu spent part of the spring and summer with his family and childhood friends, eating at their homes, drinking, playing football and singing karaoke. He painted them at home or at work, as they sat, stood and modelled for him. Liu documented his journey in a loose-leaf diary produced by the local paper factory, where his parents used to work. The project was also recorded in a documentary film, also called Hometown Boy, by famed Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien. The film, together with Liu’s diary entries, old photographs of his family and childhood, photos he took of his return home and the dozens of paintings he made during his stay, comprised his solo exhibition.
The hour-long film was more than a mere footnote to the exhibition: it explored a small industrial town left behind by the rapid pace of modernization and urbanization – despite which Liu’s childhood friends live not very differently from their parents’ generation. The film offers a glimpse of the lives of the subjects of his paintings, enticing us to invest emotionally in the details of their stories and the artist’s relationship to them. Its inclusion added crucial context and power to Liu’s figurative portraits, which might have otherwise fallen a bit flat.
At the beginning of the film Liu confesses that he feels anxious about the project, worried that his fame and commercial success as an artist may have affected his relationship to his childhood friends. And indeed the fact that his life has taken a completely different trajectory from theirs was visibly an obstacle for the artist – more so than for his friends. As it turned out, both they and his relatives obviously enjoyed spending time with him and appeared to regard his success with nothing but enthusiastic admiration. Liu, however, saw himself as an intellectual confronted by the reality of a disappearing working class – a phenomenon he clearly intended to illustrate in this project. Thus, by engaging with them as his artistic subjects, Liu himself remained irretrievably ‘the other’.
Last week, Fondation Cartier in Paris opened their doors to a selection of works from seminal Chinese contemporary artist Yue Minjun entitled L’ombre d’un fou rire (The shadow of a laugh). Featuring nearly 40 paintings from collections around the world, as well as a set of drawings that have never been shown in public, the showing marks his first solo exhibition at a European museum. Fans who can’t get enough of his colorful characters with the signature frozen grin have several months to stop by for a look as the show runs through March 17th, 2013. Check out some photos as well as a video below…
The Beijing branch of Pace Gallery is currently showing a selection of new works from Chinese contemporary artist Yue Minjun. Exhibiting in his home city, the painter famous for his smiling self-portraits has included Christian iconography in this latest set of canvases as well as recent work leading the viewer to think about the role of Western influence in China. Is the ubiquitous grin pervading these works laughing at or laughing with the religious symbolism or is it just the Minjun’s signature imagery innocently translated into a new setting? Even more interesting, rounding out the works for The Road are a series of pieces re-appropriating classical Christian paintings like The Annunciation except the main characters are missing leaving empty structures and buildings.
More after the jump…
WALL STREET JOURNAL – CHINA REALTIME REPORT
November 3, 2010, 11:43 AM
China Art Star Yue Minjun Goes Celluloid
‘Color Me Love,’ a new movie by director Alexi Tan produced by John Woo’s Lion Rock Pictures, features works by artist Yue Minjun.
Artist Yue Minjun, right, makes a cameo in ‘Color Me Love.’
Followers of Chinese contemporary art know Yue Minjun for works that feature his wide-smiling likeness.
Now Mr. Yue’s familiar mug will be seen in a new medium: film. He makes his debut movie appearance in the new Chinese movie “Color Me Love,” which opens in China Nov. 9.
Says director Alexi Tan, a former fashion photographer in New York who now lives in Beijing: “This film focuses on the beautiful side of Beijing: art, fashion and entertainment. All these key industries that are in Beijing.”
The movie, a love story that also has been compared to “The Devil Wears Prada,” is about the relationship between an artist (played by popular actor Liu Ye) and a fashion-magazine editor (played by actress Yao Chen).
Mr. Tan met Mr. Yue at a party in Beijing – Mr. Liu introduced them — and they became friends. “Aside from myself being a fan of his art, when we were doing this film, one of my concerns about portraying art in the film is that the audience would be too distanced from contemporary art. So I wanted his images in the film because they are so strikingly memorable,” said Mr. Tan, speaking on the phone from Beijing.
Mr. Yue’s “Gweong-Gweong,” a painting he made in 1993, grabbed headlines for when it sold at a Christie’s Hong Kong auction in 2008 for 54,087,500 Hong Kong dollars (US$6.9 million). It depicts fighter jets alongside dozens of figures, representing Mr. Yue, flying over Tiananmen Square.
Mr. Yue, who Mr. Tan describes as a “lovely, low-key man,” became something of a visual leitmotif in “Color Me Love.” The artist has a cameo at the end of the movie (it required many takes, according to Mr. Tan, because Mr. Yue was uncomfortable being in front of the camera). A scene in the film was shot in his studio; he is also portrayed in a dream sequence as an animated figure in the film; and a number of his artworks can be seen in the story’s key moments.
Mr. Yue, 48 years old, even lent a small portrait of himself to be used in the magazine office of a character played by Joan Chen. Mr. Tan, 40, says: “I had to bring that piece home with me every night. Then, I’d bring it back to the set the next day. No one else wanted to be responsible for it.”
The movie, backed by John Woo’s Lion Rock Productions, was made for 12 million Chinese yuan (about US$1.8 million), far less than the going price for Mr. Yue’s best-known works.
Xu Zhen, the former Shanghai based, now Bejing residing artist, has been called an ‘enfant terrible’ more than once with his boundary pushing art which encompasses sculpture, multimedia and installation. Having exhibited a huge, imposing leather cathedral, dripping with bondage accoutrements, entitled Play201301, at Hong Kong’s Art Basel, that stopped us in our tracks Fiasco had to find out more about this charismatic Chinese artist.
There was the 2005 installation 8848 Minus 1.86, which consisted of a video of Zhen climbing Mount Everest and cutting off the tip (1.86 metres, also the artist’s height) and a refridgerated unit containing the frozen peak. The video is said to have been done in a studio; creating the question of it being more stunt than art. In 2008 he exhibited The Starving of Sudan, a recreation of photojournalist Kevin Carter’s image of a young, starving child being watched over by a waiting vulture whereby Zhen placed a real African child on a straw covered floor with a large animatronic bird, allowing viewers to take their own version of the iconic image. Needless to say it created huge controversy.
In 2009, Zhen created MadeIn, an “art corporation” of which he was CEO and left the making of his art to his crew while ideas were generated in a think-tank manner with Zhen giving the final go-ahead. The company focused not just on creation but curation and has continually produced works since conception, however this year MadeIn Company became ‘Xu Zhen by MadeIn Company’, reverting a focus back onto the artist. We talk to Zhen about the transition of his company and his, often satirical, art.
Genuine and artificial leather, BDSM accessories, foam, metal, wood ropes
545 x 300 x 330 cm
Seeing Play201301 at Art Basel HK was what lead me to discover more about you and MadeIn Company. It was the first thing I saw as I came in and it practically blocked me from going further due to its scale and the intricacy that commanded my attention. Having since seen Safe House A and Play 4, is this piece connected and evolving from their creation? (If not, how did it come into being?)
There are indeed some visual connections between these different pieces, but not only these particular ones. Generally speaking, our recent creations are all related to one common large structure, this structure or ‘self created language’ constitutes a background for all our works. “Safe House” is a series of works especially created to respond to some social values and purposes. This series of works also refers to the cultural fitness exercise “Physique of Consciousness”, the installation “Revolution Castings”, etc. While the series “Play” consists in an exploration of various cultural characteristics and visual symbols intertwined together. It isn’t merely a relation based on symbols, it is issued from the whole creating direction.
I walked around it for such a long time that I got to overhear people’s reactions to it – my favourite was “like if Louis Vuitton owned a sex shop” – but many, once they’d worked out it was a cathedral, seemed to be struck by a blasphemous overtone. It certainly generated a lot of whispers. Is this a desired reaction to MadeIn Company’s output? What kind of reaction/comment do you want the viewer to have with regards to your art?
Different reactions reflect different experiences, we cannot control the way people react, but we believe that these attitudes and comments are part of the work. We are always providing a certain “possibility” for discussion and memory.
Given the church and their history of attitudes towards sex but also the proliferation of sex abuse/paedophilia, was any of this part of Play201301′s original idea/end result?
The interpretations that can be imagined for these symbols are very broad, part of our goals when creating is how to use symbols to go further than what we can already imagine.
Silicone, iron, hemp cordage, feathers and shells
Although previously there was the Hong Kong International Art Fair, how important is it for Chinese artists that Art Basel HK now exists, particularly with its remit that 50% of the show must be regional? Was there any doubt in your mind that you wanted to be a part of it?
For us, art fairs are a very good opportunity to realize our creations, we frequently participate to various art fairs in the world, including Art Basel in other countries.
After you started MadeIn you stated that you rarely got involved in the hands-on element and instead approved ideas and concepts. Has that changed in any way over the past few years, in either moving closer to certain projects or removing yourself further?
Most of the effort is spent on thinking. Part of the work also consists in the conceptual development of “MadeIn Company” and “Xu Zhen, produced by MadeIn Company”. “Xu Zhen, produced by MadeIn Company” is a project that just started this year and a lot of new creations will be revealed soon.
Much was made of the freedom that doing MadeIn allowed you as an artist, but freedom always, eventually, finds new boundaries to be overcome. Have you encountered this yet and in what way?
To obtain more freedom, and develop the whole system’s freedom, we can change the understanding of its notion. Our creations and development are based on long term regular work, this is also a basis to create a freer system.
The change from MadeIn Company to Xu Zhen by MadeIn Company – how long did you consider that and why was this the right time?
This is one of the multiple projects that MadeIn Company has been working on, this project started this year, in fact from the beginning when MadeIn was launched, the definition of the company as a multi-functions creating corporate was established, therefore aside from the fact that we are a creating group we even have more possibilities. Three years before, we set a frame for “MadeIn Company”, now it is the most appropriate moment to develop its content, and “Xu Zhen” is part of it.
You seem to have a vested interest in how Chinese artists, including MadeIn, can prosper given that there is little support from private or government funding. As the head/mentor/director of a company that wants to expand as well as all create the other projects that interest you, is there the feeling that you are not only (or less) ‘artist’ than when you began, and more in the role of a ‘producer’?
This might be related to my working experience, from the beginning as the art director of BizArt Art Center, to the establishment of MadeIn Company, I have always both created works and curated shows, sometime my work also include writing, coordinating, etc. Perhaps my early years of working experience made me realize the necessity of working with a team. The difficulty of art today for me isn’t only about producing a situation, it is also to propel a situation in a way it can have more influence and lead to challenges. I see all this work as creation.
Your work has been pointed out as satirical of the world it inhabits and you’ve referenced what MadeIn do as a “game” that everyone is still playing along with… is this a sign that despite the art world being seen as quite po-faced there’s a healthy dose of self-deprecation within it? Why do you think your jabs at the art world and other artists are accepted?
Many people think my works are humoristic, but I think that I am a very serious artist. Including MadeIn, many people see it as something serious, but I actually think that it carries the fun and the risks of a game, everyone likes adventures and get together. The openness in the art field makes it accept things that have an adventurous spirit, enlarge this ‘openness’ is also part of our exploring area, because we are part of this system.
In moving from Shanghai to Bejing has this given you a new or re-energised vision for MadeIn? What do you hope to gain, both professionally and personally, from the move?
Wherever we are, we don’t wish to be limited to a ‘location’, we need now a wider field to attract talents. We will need more people to realize our ideals in the future. This game requires more people to be involved, our work will be simultaneously carried on in different place all over the world.
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Postcard from Shanghai no. 2
September 21, 2009 by Jörg Heiser
Artist Xu Zhen currently is the top dog in the Shanghai art scene, an energetic young artist bound to play the game of a media-savvy eclecticist who doesn’t shy back from any displays of frivolously ironic conceptualism and cynical provocation. He’s working under several aliases now, and also runs a website. But his show at Beijing’s Long March Space last Winter also exposed the shortcomings of his game: the mother of a Guinean toddler was paid for her daughter to appear in a gallery scenario including an animatronic vulture, recreating the infamous 1994 photograph of a starving Sudanese baby girl stalked by a real vulture (a video version was shown in Basel’s Art Unlimited this June). Layering levels of voyeurism, exploitation and shock on top of the ones already associated with the original photo does nothing to actually allow political or aesthetic insight – it just serves to create, so to speak, the animatronic imitation of an actual debate. Where censorship and a lack of platforms for critical exchange prevent this debate from happening, this kind of stuff fills the void. Just compare Xu Zhen’s piece to Alfred Jaar’s The Sound of Silence of 1995: the latter’s is a filmic-textual essay set in a kind of choreographed installation, based on the story of the same photograph, also working with shock and voyeurism. Jaar shows you the original photograph, combined with a blinding flash of lights, as if burning it into your brain tissue. He’s not however out to just feed on the shock value and heightening it in terms of exploiting yet another person (and by way of that making the exhibition visitor an unwillingly complicit as well), but actually creates a thought-provoking collision of political engagement, ethical guilt, and aesthetic analysis.
I could go on but back to Shanghai: here, Xu Zhen – having renamed himself into an artistic entity called ‘MadeIn’ – dominated the central hall of the ShContemporary Discoveries section with what seemed a piss-take of the typical Expo or Olympics sculpture involving fake grass, decorative columns and odd mannequins – but again one couldn’t help but think that he fed on the logic of hugeness rather than deflating it. Even more ambitious was his show at Shangart Gallery, spread over several spaces. Again authored under the alias ‘MadeIn’, he created a fake group show displaying works of Mid-Eastern artists. And again he pulled the registers on the pipe organ of grand gestures, and pushed the usual buttons: one space is a swimming pool with doodled paintings placed around it, another space features Styrofoam pieces reminiscent of the kind of bulky packaging material used for TV sets etc. But here, the cut-outs are not for home entertainment but for miniature mosques and life-size machine guns. As said, the usual buttons. There is also a miniature oil well pump made of barbed wire.
Rumours abound that supposedly the show was threatened with being closed due to diplomatic concerns and/or, simply, censorship, but one can’t help but think that that is yet another button being pushed. Even if true, how frustrating it must be if one feels obliged to show solidarity with a censored artist or writer whose work one otherwise isn’t necessarily convinced of. All of that said, Xu Zhen remains an active force in Shanghai, and there are certainly more, and possibly better, things to come (Hans-Ulrich Obrist, for that matter, in conversation said something along these lines).
The most talked-about group show was ‘Bourgeoisified Proletariat’, organised in a new building, the Songjiang Creative Studio, on the outskirts of Shanghai, just across from Ikea (press release here). Everything, not necessarily in a bad way, looked slightly improvised, although the show included large ambitious installations. And – surprise, surprise – a certain ‘MadeIn’ was listed as one of the co-curators, and one of the artists in the show. Here, Mr. ‘MadeIn’ created a disco-space with a huge dopamine-molecule in the middle entitled Love in Fact Results from an Excess of Dopamine in the Brain (2009), plus all sorts of (English) sentences on the floor made of necklace chains (_Metal Language_, 2009), including banal stuff such as ‘did you bring the DVDs I asked you’ next to more implicational-sounding ones such as ‘job what job?’ But what got us more talking on the way back in the car was Kan Xuan’s sound installation Dead, which we all felt wasn’t maybe 100% fully convincingly realized on the aesthetic-technical level, and certainly also we didn’t fully understand (where were the sources from, what was it really about?), but in any case the screams and voices in it created a haunting sense of urgency. Same for Zhang Peili’s Unnecessary Collision (2009), an installation involving two bones clashing through a remote-controlled mechanism, accompanied by a literally bone-shaking sound. This may sound wannabe-spooky, but was in the best sense deadpan. (Peili is a super-important veteran of Video art in China, and is heading the leading video department at the China Art Academy of Hangzhou.) Yang Fudong’s video installation My Heart was Touched Last Year (2007) involved two glamorous-looking (Shanghai?) ladies looking at the camera on two screens in separate rooms, back to back. In both scenes the punch line was that they never, by way of editing manipulation, blinked. A bit too one-liner for my taste, but others liked the piece.
Third and last postcard from Shanghai will include a studio visit with Zhang Huan, who is more than just a sort of hardcore no-nonsense forerunner to Xu Zhen, and a short discussion of the best group show currently on show in Shanghai, ‘History in the Making: Shanghai 1979-2009’. Bear with me.
About the author
Jörg Heiser is co-editor of frieze and co-publisher of frieze d/e. He is based in Berlin.
Mao Yan’s luminous, soft-colored oil portraits place his sitters in quiet abstract settings, capturing them without any prominent emotion or expression and often only simple outlines for clothing. Mao attempts to use as few brushstrokes as possible in an effort to simplify form and capture an essence rather than a likeness. “I don’t pay more attention to representation of individuality; excessive attention to representation could only lead to narrow-mindedness,” he has said. Mao is perhaps best known for his “Thomas Series” (1998-2009), a collection of nearly 100 portraits of a close friend and Luxembourgish expatriate named Thomas who, by the end of the series, resembles an ethereal shadow, his likenesses bathed in so much light and movement as to verge on abstraction.
Talent and instinct
Asia News Network
Beijing July 1, 2013 1:00 am
China’s Mao Yan says his work reflects his own state of mind
With centre-parted short hair and baggy old jeans, 45-year-old Mao Yan looks more like a rebellious youth with the bearing of a sharp and sensitive artist. The vanguard painter is said to be the most difficult to define among today’s Chinese art icons. His works are extremely contemporary, though the artist claims to have a serious classicism complex.
He has stayed in Nanjing for years, while other artists proceeded northward, flocking to the capital.
Despite the multifaceted symbols and concepts emerging in the endless stream of contemporary Chinese art, he sticks to portraits, the most traditional subject of easel painting that has gradually been pushed aside by newer art forms.
“Painting to me is an instinct,” Mao says. “I don’t like doing things ‘on purpose’ and I have no need to prove myself just for a trend or an idea.”
At Pace Gallery in Beijing, Mao is presenting his first solo exhibition after signing with the gallery.
Featured works include several pieces from his best-known Thomas Series from the late 1990s and a few unconventional portraits of animals. Two large-scale portraits of naked women painted this year are the artist’s first-ever showing of this kind.
Mao was named the most influential oil painter of 2012 at the Seventh Award of Art China in May. He along with three others were also named the Martell Artists of the Year last month.
“I heard many fellow artists highly praise Mao’s superb technique, but what is most precious is his earnestness in work, which is like a mirror that shames those pretenders,” comments artist Li Xiaoshan.
Studying painting with his father since the age of three, Mao quickly showed his precocious ability and was labelled a genius even before he entered the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1988. In 1992 the then-24-year-old achieved national fame at the 1990s Art Biennale held in Guangzhou for his work “Portrait of Xiaoshan”.
He continued to portray his friends until the late 1990s, when he met Thomas, an overseas student from Luxembourg. For the next decade Thomas was the only subject on Mao’s canvas.
“Subjects depicted during Mao’s ‘pre-Thomas period’ had faint social identities, age characters and completed postures. Later these elements were simplified yet the personality became stronger,” comments writer Han Dong.
“Thomas is only a cover – it could be anybody, including myself,” says Mao, who intended to escape from the booming cluster of Chinese symbols at that time by portraying a foreigner.
These finished portraits are therefore a far cry from the original model. “There is surely resemblance in appearance and character, but I endow the figures with extra features through the eyes and facial expression, and through the tone,” Mao says.
Mao also likes to infuse instant feelings into every stroke of the brush. For example, if he is obsessed with Song Dynasty (960-1279) poetry during a certain period
of time, his inspired sentiment will be reflected in the following works.
Since the mid-1990s, colours of flame and warm brown in his works have gradually been covered and replaced by a much calmer tone of grey, which has lasted till today.
He brushes each canvas with multiple thin layers, which creates a progressive visual that prints fail to capture. But such a method of painting slows down the process and limits him to a few pieces per year. “Every piece deserves years of efforts,” Mao believes, stressing that even this must be after “good communication with the model” – otherwise the process “is very likely to continue infinitely”.
The market has corroborated his pursuit of perfection. In 2007 Mao entered the million-dollar club when his oil painting “Memory or Dancing Black Rose” nearly twice that at the Beijing Poly Spring Auction. And in 2011 Mao’s “Portrait of Xiaoka” set his highest record at an auction house.
Aside from the Thomas series, which will continue, Mao says, he is preparing a new portrait project studying the images of Chinese people. That, he says, “will be a lifetime project”.
“I enjoy spending a long time doing one thing without giving much thought to its meaning or result,” he says. “It is my painting principle as well as my attitude toward life.”
OFF YOU GO
Mao Yan’s solo exhibition continues at the Pace Beijing Gallery until July 20. It’s in the 798 Art Zone on Jiu Xian Qiao Road.
At the inaugural Art13 contemporary art fair, the Chinese abstract artist presents a monumental 12-metre installation composed of bamboo, cotton and 8,000 sheets of rice paper for Pearl Lam Galleries, creating a dense and sensuous field of colour.
During the recent inaugural edition of the Art13 London art fair, Chinese abstract artist Zhu Jinshi presented Boat, an installation for Pearl Lam Galleries composed of bamboo, cotton and 8,000 sheets of rice paper in a striking 12 metre-long structure.
Zhu Jinshi began creating abstract works in the late 1970s. In order to exhibit in an “official” capacity, he joined the Stars (Xingxing), a group of Chinese artists that included Ai Weiwei and Ma Desheng, and participated in their seminal Beijing exhibition in 1979. At Art13, Zhu Jinshi’s work was represented alongside another major Chinese abstract artist, Su Xiaobai. The work of both artists attempts to illustrate that Chinese abstract has been a major, undiscovered force in contemporary art.
“Zhu Jinshi and Su Xiaobai are radically different artists, yet each exemplifies the essence of contemporary Chinese abstract painting,” stated abstract art expert Paul Moorhouse, former curator at Tate Britain and now Senior Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, London, who visited the artists’ studios last year said. “Working spontaneously, Zhu creates impossibly dense, sensuous fields of colour. Su develops his paintings patiently, slowly refining their exquisite, veneered surfaces. This profound feeling for evocative materials, and their shared emphasis on creating an abstract physical reality, is entirely distinctive — and completely compelling.”
On top and above: Zhu Jinshi, Boat, Art13, Olympia Grand Hall, London, 2013
“Zhu Jinshi and Su Xiaobai are Chinese artists who deconstruct Western theory of art and visual language by rooting them to Chinese traditions and philosophy,” said Pearl Lam. “This year, both artists have important solo shows at Pearl Lam Galleries and I am proud to bring this selection of works for their London debut. Zhu Jinshi’s rice paper Boat, which is instilled with cultural resonance and embodies the artist’s personal voyage, will be journeying from Shanghai to London for the first time.”
Zhu Jinshi, Boat, Art13, Olympia Grand Hall, London, 2013
Zhu Jinshi, Boat, Art13, Olympia Grand Hall, London, 2013
Gallerist Pearl Lam docks Zhu Jinshi’s ‘Boat’ at Art13 London
art / 4 Mar 2013 /By Ellen Himelfarb
Zhu Jinshi’s ‘Boat’, a 12m-long cylinder of rice paper and bamboo, came to London for Art13, the city’s newest art fair
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An ambitious paper and bamboo installation by Chinese artist Zhu Jinshi was the centerpiece of Art13 London, a new international art fair that launched last week with a similarly impressive scope.
‘Boat’ is the masterwork of Zhu Jinshi, one of two contemporary Chinese artists brought to London by the Hong Kong- and Shanghai-based gallery Pearl Lam (the other is Su Xiaobai, a disciple of the late Joseph Beuys). The 12m-long cylindrical vessel was docked at the heart of Olympia’s Grand Hall and echoed the space’s heroic arched-glass ceiling.
Pearl Lam made, perhaps, the biggest splash at Art13, the largest art fair to launch in London in more than a decade and a spin-off of Art HK, the fair that helped shape Hong Kong into a world-class contemporary-art hub. Unlike Frieze, that other ambitious London art fair, Art13 had a decidedly international presence, with about half its content coming from non-Western artists and a significant delegation from Asia.
This, according to Lam, stems from an effort to demystify Asian cultures and philosophies for the Western consumer.
‘To understand us, you really need to know about our roots, our art, how we behave. Everything is rooted in 5,000 years of culture,’ said Lam. ‘A fair for me is not just about buying art but understanding other cultures.’
‘Boat’ was assembled over three days by an army of workers imported from Hong Kong. It constitutes 8,000 sheets of rice paper, a medium with cultural and historical resonance in China. The delicate layering of the paper, supported by 800 slender shafts of bamboo, belies the sheer size and visual impact of the work.
The piece can be seen as a metaphorical arrival of Chinese culture to the world stage and the implications of its arrival for East and West. This cultural conversation is a recurring theme of Lam’s artists, even those she brings back from the West to her galleries at home in China. ‘Our gallery has always been about cross-cultural exchange,’ she says. ‘It’s about cross discipline. It has always been that way.’
Romance of the West Chamber 3西廂記 三 (2012) Oil on canvas 布面油畫 100 x 80 cm (39 2/5 x 31 1/2 in.)
A major exhibition of works by Chinese Abstract Master: Zhu Jinshi is currently on show in Hong Kong, until July 13th.
Zhu Jinshi: The Reality of Paint, at Pearl Lam Galleries, is curated by Paul Moorhouse, Abstract Expert and Curator of 20th Century at the National Portrait Gallery London, and features 26 new strikingly dense and abstract oil paintings. It is also Zhu Jinshi’s first solo show in Hong Kong.
Who Will Be Li Bai 誰演李白 (2012) Oil on canvas 布面油畫 180 x 160 cm (70 1/10 x 63 in.)
During the Cultural Revolution, Zhu Jinshi was an active participant in underground cultural and literary activities, and in the late 1970s emerged as a member of the renowned and groundbreaking ‘Stars’ (Xingxing) avant-garde artist group alongside Ai Weiwei and Ma Desheng.
Working in Berlin in the 1980s and influenced by Kandinsky, Zhu began his lifelong commitment to the language of pure abstract form. It was in 1980s Berlin that Zhu was exposed to German Expressionism, while the speed and spontaneity of his brushwork is attributed to influences by xie yi ink-and-brush paintings.
Highlights of the exhibition include Water Lilies, 2006, which curator, Paul Moorhouse has included deliberately for its importance in the stylistic and material evolution of Zhu’s work; it marks his move towards a more vibrant palette whilst hinting at his preceding work. The series of three paintings Hard Roads in Shu, will also be on show for the first time at this exhibition. Inspired by the literary works of renowned Tang dynasty poet Li Bai (701 – 762 AD) that describe the sublimely majestic mountains and impassable valleys in Sichuan (Shu).The influence of traditional Chinese landscape genre paintings can also be seen here with large areas of blank canvas left (liu-bai), a noticeable departure from his previously covered canvases. Zhu Jinshi said of his series “Although these painting are not able to move mountains or break stones, the exceptional power of these paintings lies in their ability to clear the mind of all worries… creative and spiritual pathways.”
The Reader’s Words 閱讀者的字 (2012) Oil on canvas 布面油畫 100 x 80 cm (39 2/5 x 31 1/2 in.)
“Zhu Jinshi is one of China’s leading contemporary artists. His highly distinctive approach was apparent from the early 1980s, when he made his first abstract paintings…Colour, light, texture and atmosphere are vital elements that animate these extraordinary works, informing them with the mysterious aura of life.” – Paul Moorhouse
Zhu Jinshi: The Reality of Paint
Until July 13, 2013
Pearl Lam Galleries, 601–605, 6/F, Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, Hong Kong
Following the whiff of recent blue-chip vendors, Shanghai-based Pearl Lam Galleries (PLG), formerly called Contrasts, opened a space in the Peddar Street building in May, representing a return of sorts for their eponymous socialite cum curator and director, the Hong Kong-born Pearl Lam.
PLG opened with what may seem an unlikely show, given the gallery’s taste for fusion and flare—an exhibition of Chinese abstraction, curated by veteran theorist and curator, Gao Minglu. Gao’s essay on the works and artists, available at the gallery, is titled “A Return to Humanity and the Natural World—An Introduction to Chinese ‘Abstraction’.” Gao has worked with PLG on projects before, and here he presents a trusted band of artists, representing a trend he terms “maximalism” (jiduo zhuyi) referring to a group of such painters as yi pai—which he sometimes translates problematically as “mindmap,” or more fittingly as “school of notion.” Gao uses the term yi pai, as he argues “abstraction” to be inherently associated with a Western current—from the Enlightenment through the industrial revolution and contemporary capitalism, via Euro-American modernism and Abstract Expresionism—and unable to adequately describe the underpinnings and culturally specific dynamic of the so-called Yipai painters.
Galleries seem to like using scholarship as pseudo-marketing—certainly if your product, whatever the professor says, appears to prospective Hong Kong clientele to be thoroughly foreign to their conception of what Chinese art is. What better way to garner interest than to argue: this looks the same as that (which is foreign), but it is doing something entirely different, which in fact continues and develops “China’s” (untainted) tradition and cultural ésprit. This leads Gao—respected for coining the term “apartment art” to describe the post-1989 turn in contemporary Chinese practice, and a seasoned curator—to make facile blanket assertions, such as: “In China, traditional poetry, calligraphy and painting all advocate togetherness, not differentiation. Therefore, art is not a reflection of the outer world, but is a restoration of a shared idea.”
But the sheer diversity of the works—in scale, materials, energy and technique, for example—prompts a glance at the artist’s CVs, in turn urging one to cast aside a sui generis frame of “Chineseness,” and perhaps, more humbly, appreciate the nature of these painterly explorations on their own terms. In his effort to de-Westernize our gaze, Gao imposes his own monolithic “Chinese” filter on artists working in oils and ink, on canvas or rice paper, in their fifties or thirties, having lived overseas or not, and so on. Oddly, it seems the “look” of twentieth 20th century Western abstraction remained in the curator’s mind. Were it not for the Chinese ethnicity of the painters, and the formally abstract look of their works, how could this diverse group find itself in the same, apparently thematic exhibition?
How else might one lump together, for example, the deconstructive “ink plays” on mulberry paper of Qiu Zhenzhong (b. 1947), with the almost sculptural canvases of Zhu Jinshi (b. 1954), with their inches-thick lashings of brightly colored oil paint? For his part, Gao discusses Zhu’s work only as an example of the Yipai artists’ alleged rejection or deconstruction of Western rationalism—without entertaining the idea that other “abstract” artists, regardless of nationality, have undertaken much the same thing. Neither does this address the formal differences between exhibited works.
Referring again to the artists’ biographies: though from a similar generation, Qiu has a masters in calligraphy from Tianjin and subsequently spent two years in Japan, known for its postwar development of avant-gardist calligraphy. On the other hand, after his studies, Zhu gained a residency in Berlin in the late 1980s and lectured in Germany in the 1990s, and has recently undertaken a BANFF residency in Canada. Nature or nurture? The pragmatist says both, hence to ignore one or the other seems dogmatic or idealistic.
To typecase artists as collectively representing the 1980s is obviously reductive, yet to overlook the issue of age or generation is particularly problematic in the case of those born and raised in China. One of the exhibition’s strengths is its presentation of work by artists born between the 1940s to 1970s—a turbulent thirty-year period, in which each decade must have left different impressions and experiences on the painters. For example, the vast, strenuously handpainted ink grids of veteran Li Huashan, were developed by Li after a career of painting in revolutionary, realist styles, through which he attracted official favor. Only in the 1990s did Li adopted this angular, matrix-like motif, constructed from intensely controlled brushwork.
The choice, made by most of the artists in this show, not to commit to any formal representation, may also be approached from other, more pragmatic angles, such as in terms of China’s art infrastructure or its ideological climate. Huge, time-consuming abstract paintings, in ink or oil, bring to mind villages of relatively cheap warehouse studio residences, where artists might make a living from painting thanks to a keen market, as long as they have space and time. Non-figurative art can also be viewed as blurring the line between modernity and tradition, particularly in cultures with a calligraphic tradition—such is the case for Islamic societies too, and the experiments of modern Malaysian painters come to mind. The ideological position of such work is no longer clearly manifest at the surface level. The surface is a record of something else, of other thoughts and actions, accumulated elsewhere before painting, so to speak. In this sense, it might be interesting to approach abstraction in China today in terms of the historical literati culture, for instance, with its lofty aspirations towards aesthetic reclusion, which were, more often than not, thoroughly urban reactions to social and political excess.
Another blindspot is somewhat typical of Mainland scholars: Gao does not explore the critical relationship to neighboring artworlds. Yet, how should we understand the tactile surfaces of Zhang Jianjun (b. 1955), which sometimes become embodied objects jutting from the canvas, or hanging in front of it, rendered in primitive earthen tones, with Zhang sometimes burning the painting’s surface—for example, without considering art informel in Japan and Europe, or the Korean “tachiste” monochrome painters, in vogue when Zhang would have been in his late twenties and thirties? None of this rich ambiguity or confusion in the very notion of a “Chinese abstraction” is explored in the exhibition framework, yet this does not detract from the works themselves, which impressively range from the mid 1980s down to the present.
According to the director of the PLG Shanghai space, Harriet Onslow, the concentration on abstraction also signals recognition of this as a key growth area in the market. With a new gallery dedicated to design set to open in Shanghai soon, and another space in Singapore’s Gilman Barracks earmarked for 2013, evidently ”Asia’s most dynamic art gallery”—as PLG bills itself, with characteristic pomp—has its sites, and purse, set on the region’s burgeoning art marketplaces.
He is one of the most renowned contemporary artists in China. His ongoing solo exhibition at Pace Gallery Beijing is creating a huge buzz. He was featured on the cover of the anniversary issue of Bazaar Art, published a few days ago. He has gained a significant international reputation through countless exposure in western media, including British art magazine “Glass” and W magazine. His works have passed through prestigious galleries and auction houses such as Pace Gallery and the Saatchi Gallery.
He is Kunming-born Chinese painter – Zhang Xiaogang.
This 55-year-old painter was born in southern China’s Yunnan Province, and graduated from the Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts. From the mid-1990s, he started to paint portraits of people from the era of the Cultural Revolution, exploring the notion of identity within a culture of collectivism and expressing the emotions behind that. Zhang is best known for his Big Family series, which was inspired by his discovery of old family photographs. The Bloodlines – Big Family series was debuted with much acclaim at the 1995 Venice Biennale. Two years later, Zhang received Britain’s Coutts Art Foundation Award.
Having grown up during the Cultural Revolution, Zhang Xiaogang made surrealist-influenced works that focuses on the after effects it brought to the family today.
His works have a profound meaning through those melancholy and isolated figures with pale and emotionless faces immersed in contemplation. It has been interpreted by the Western world as the epitome of modern China.
Also noteworthy is the high price Zhang Xiaogang’s art works command. In recent years, his works have led the price for Chinese contemporary paintings at international auctions:
three comrades of Bloodline Big Family series
In 2007, at Sotheby’s New York spring auction, Zhang’s painting titled “three comrades of Bloodline Big Family series” was sold for US$2.11 million.
In October 2010, at Sotheby’s Hong Kong autumn auction, the painter’s work “Chapter of a New Century – Birth of the People’s Republic of China II ” was sold for HK$52.18 million.
(Chapter of a New Century – Birth of the People’s Republic of China II.）
At the April 2011 Sotheby’s Hong Kong spring auction-“The Ullens Collection – The Nascence of Avant-Garde China”, the work named Forever Lasting Love was sold for HK $79.06 million, breaking the record for the world’s contemporary art price!
(Forever Lasting Love)
Yet these are but a small selection of Zhang’s work. Based on data from Artnet.com, the number of artworks sold from Zhang Xiaogang has reached 633.
In Zhang Xiaogang’s on-going Pace Beijing solo exhibition, the artist again returns to his old acquaintance the oil painting and continues his stylized tone with stains of time and warmth of life; there are also new works exhibited for the first time.
This solo exhibition of Zhang Xiaogang, which runs at Pace Beijing until February 28 2013, serves as the opening show of his global solo exhibitions. After this, his works will be exhibited at PACE New York in April 2013, followed by PACE LONDON later in the year.
The bad news is that, since last year, the health of China’s most expensive artist is causing concern. According to the Wall Street Journal reporting in July 12, “for the past year, China’s most expensive living artist hasn’t been allowed to paint, doctor’s orders. Zhang Xiaogang, age 54, a Beijing-based painter whose hypnotic portraits have topped $10 million at auction, recently suffered a pair of heart attacks, and his doctors told him—for the first time in his three-decade career—to rest.”
As for how his health condition will impact the art market, it remains to be seen.
“Beijing Voice” Pace Beijing: Zhang Xiaogang
Date: Dec 13, 2012 – Feb 28, 2013, Tues – Sat 10 to 6
Place: 798 Art District, No. 2 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100015
Tel: +86 10 5978 9781
Fax: +86 10 5978 9781-818
Pace Beijing (798 Art District, No. 2 Jiuxianqiao Road Chaoyang District, Beijing). Dec 13, 2012 – Feb 28, 2013
Contemplating Zhang Xiaogang’s works always leads us down two paths. The first is artistic: you hear the name Zhang Xiaogang, and immediately think — The Big Family series, collective consciousness and national psyche; the second drifts to the realm of pure commercialism — Zhang Xiaogang, auctions, record bids, private collections. However you think of it, neither path negates the link between Zhang and his classic works — the standard Cultural Revolution portraits of individuals without any defining individuality, with their ubiquitous bright black pupils, red scarves and armbands, and the geometric red lines on the lower sections of his compositions. Of course, more essential are the flares of light in nearly every one of Zhang’s works. Though the pieces exhibited in his current solo show at Pace Beijing appear to differ from his signature works, their inextricable links to his past works can be picked up at a mere glance. Modern art criticism has interpreted — or rather, over-interpreted — Zhang’s patches of light and his red spots to such a degree it seems they could reflect or symbolize virtually anything, and thus their meaning become exceedingly obscure. Fortunately, we can attempt to use the pieces in Beijing Voice as a sort of “decoder” to the twin mysteries of Zhang’s light refractions and the ever-present red lines, though we might soon find ourselves standing at the entrance of a new labyrinth.
This new labyrinth sits within a temporary room at the center of Pace Beijing’s exhibition space, since Zhang’s six featured works cannot fill up the massive exhibition hall at Pace. The walls of the exhibition room are spray-painted with quotes from Zhang Xiaogang which only serve to veil the meaning of the pieces in mystery.
Zhang Xiaogang, “The Book of Amnesia,” oil on canvas, 130 x 162 cm, 2012.
张晓刚，”遗忘之书”, 布上油画, 130 x 162 cm, 2012。
Zhang Xiaogang,”Big Woman and Little Man,” oil on canvas, 140 x 220 cm, 2012.
张晓刚，”大女人与小男人”, 布上油画, 140 x 220 cm, 2012。
Overall, Zhang cannot exorcise The Big Family from his mind, and seems unable to relinquish the trappings of his “pictorial identity.” The rays of light shining from the flashlight in “Four Sons” (2012) satisfy his desire for flares of light. While an extension cord plugged into the lower left-hand corner of the painting recalls the use of red lines. This method of conversion is equally deployed in the remaining five pieces: the electrical wires found in “Big Woman and Little Man” (2012), “My Father” (2012), and “White Shirt and Blue Trousers”, and the sprig of plum blossoms seen in “the Book of Amnesia.” From a representational perspective, these are different incarnations of his red lines. Though they are an exception to his usual themes, the significance of the aforementioned plum blossoms goes far beyond any association with revolutionary romanticism. Additionally, the physical images in these paintings reference the objects found in The Big Family series. An old-fashioned double bed, a Soviet-style sofa set, a porcelain spittoon, a miniature pine tree Bonsai, or a waist-high section of wall painted green — each of these elements tugs at the collective memory of several generations of people. We associate this with The Big Family series, with its iconic images of the Cultural Revolution embodying the collective atmosphere of the time — not to mention the familiar yellow child seen again in “Big Woman and Little Man.”
Installation View of Zhang Xiaogang
Zhang Xiaogang,”Four Sons,” oil on canvas, 300 x 500 cm, 2012.
张晓刚，”四个儿子”, 布上油画, 300 x 500 cm, 2012。
Those familiar with Zhang’s body of work will feel a slight shock when they view these new works. We see some different features: the entire forms of his human figures are depicted; rooms are even devoid of people. But soon, we sense he has been able to reinvent the images from his 1993-1994 works. He confers both the presence and absence of his human figures through the use of standardized clothing in “White Shirt and Blue Trousers” (2012), using the clothing as a sort of metonymic device. As Zhang explained in a 2007 interview with Oriental Art, “When I was working on The Big Family, I endeavored to create a minimalist effect on the canvas, but what I truly focused on was inclusiveness. I wanted it to be inclusive in all aspects — graphic, linguistic, cultural, and informational.” Consequently, by no means should these paintings be seen as “de-Zhang-Xiaogang-ed” by the artist; it is more fitting to see them as a variation and natural progression of The Big Family series. He has kept the essential elements: the smudges of light, the geometric lines, the standard cultural revolutionary style (including clothing and facial expressions), but he has found a way to reincarnate all of these elements within the graphic environment of the paintings. But the question remains: what does it mean? Suddenly, we find ourselves retracing the familiar grooves of the critical discourse of the 90s.
Zhang Xiaogang,”My Father,” oil on canvas, 140 x 220 cm, 2012.
张晓刚，”我的父亲”, 布上油画, 140 x 220 cm, 2012。
Zhang Xiaogang,”White Shirt and Blue trousers,” oil on canvas, 140 x 200 cm, 2012.
张晓刚，”白衬衫与蓝裤子”, 布上油画, 140 x 200 cm, 2012。
Certainly, whether in terms of influence, critical literature, or scale of exposure, Zhang Xiaogang enters the annals of art history as a matter of course — at the very least, he has a firm footing in Chinese art history. But what if we perform an audacious thought experiment and project ourselves far into the future? What would the generations in the distant future think “archeologically” of the works we have in the present? How would they describe the art of our times? How would they explain Zhang’s depiction and reflection of his past and our collective history? How would they explain his commercial success? When the majority of the texts and interpretations related to his work fades with the erosion of time, perhaps Zhang Xiaogang will become truly as enigmatic as those meandering red threads and intermittent flashes of light.
“Hmm, shall we adopt him?” A pair of guests seem to be saying.
The Zhang Xiaogang opening last night at Chelsea’s Pace Gallery was the event of the young spring season. Under threatening skies, and with throngs spilling out into 25th Street, the hangar-size space was thronged with art hangers-on — but it was also thronged with the artists’ latest work, a series of busts and monumental heads, their dress and eyewear recalling the 1960s.
With a translator standing by, the 56-year-old Chinese artist held court in the front room, in front of a 4-foot-tall head that looked suspiciously like a self-portrait, glasses and all. Not far away, Chuck Close sat in his high-tech wheelchair. It was an evening to remember, and here’s some of the evidence.
Zhang (center, with glasses) among his admirers in front of a giant bust that might have been a self-portrait.
Portrait of the artist as a young man? (With apologies to James Joyce.)
Do plaid pants go with pigtails?
Hey, maybe all the heads are self-portraits.
Chuck Close made an appearance.
A rear gallery featured large-format painting on similar themes.
Some of the guests seemed to almost become part of the paintings . . .
. . . while other viewers recoiled.
BROOKLYN RAIL MAGAZINE
May 4th, 2013
by Robert C. Morgan
PACE GALLERY | MARCH 29 – APRIL 27, 2013
Zhang Xiaogang’s recent exhibition captures a singular moment within the four decade-long stretch of China’s Post-Maoist history. His sculptures of children’s heads and paintings of interior family habitats are ambiguous snapshots of the psychology of many Chinese people today. The paintings especially focus on shifting social nuances of recent years, including generational differences and feelings triggered by memories of family life at the end of the Cultural Revolution. Such intimate recollections are juxtaposed with the acceleration of entrepreneurial strategies that have led to China’s economic growth, albeit at a great social cost.
What are these social nuances exactly? Zhang Xiaogang is clearly not looking at sociological demographics to find out. These works are consistent with Zhang’s reach toward intimacy in painting over the past two decades, beginning with Bloodlines: Big Family series in the early 1990s. The sculptures, ranging from tiny child’s heads measuring six inches in height to busts of adolescent boys and girls reaching five feet, have a striking affinity with the painted Bloodlines series that evolved more than 20 years ago. By employing intimate subject matter related to the changing appearance of Chinese “middle class” families, the artist has opened a window whereby Chinese people might reflect upon their recent history and their future. The Mao suits are vestiges of the past. According to the artist, his intention was to paint the appearances of the past from a contemporary point of view, thus connecting two periods of history, in order to distill memory. Rather than despairing of the past, he wants to discover more open possibilities for the future of China.
Zhang Xiaogang, “My Mother,” 2012. Oil on canvas, 6′ 6-3/4″ × 8′ 6-3/8″. Photo: Wang Xiang / Courtesy Pace Gallery.
In the painted sculptures—all done from the imagination, rather than from live models—his youthful subjects are difficult to associate with a specific time period. According to Zhang, his portrait sculptures are entirely made-up. They are—to use his word (in translation)—his “ideal subjects.”
Aware of Renaissance and Baroque art from his travels to Europe in 1992, the artist has clearly acculturated his method to Classicism. Yet he adds touches of paint here and there on the face, cheek bones, ears and forehead to augment the emotional power of the work, as in “Young Girl No.1” (2012).
The latest portraits, all painted in 2012 – 13, include four paintings of rooms, often painted in green, similar to the ones in which the artist lived until late adolescence. The subject matter of the four paintings is as follows: a young boy sits on a couch with his mother (“My Mother”); a young girl sits in a chair adoring her father, who sits in a separate chair (“My Father”); an infant is propped in a chair in a wool suit with a cut-out section revealing his genitals and an empty chair across from him on which a streak of light can be seen (“The Position of Father”); and finally, an unoccupied bedroom in which a cut plum blossom tree mysteriously lays across the bed adjacent to a clean white shirt and blue trousers (“White Shirt and Blue Trousers”). According to the Artist, the latter symbolizes a poignant memory of his adolescent self.
These paintings undoubtedly allude to the position many ordinary Chinese families might be in today, as children and adults attempt to evaluate their prospects for the future. A prevailing concern lingers as to how and when the quality of life under the current regime will improve. The ambiguities expressed in these paintings are both profound and deeply felt. Through their ability to project meaning that brings together a dialogical view of China’s past and present on a personal level, these paintings constitute some of the strongest works in the artist’s career.
Many of the sculptures appear as if they were based on family snapshots taken in the early years of the Cultural Revolution that the artist discovered one day in a cookie box, hidden away in his parent’s attic. To hide such photographs was typical during that era. Although Zhang used some of these images to spark his famous Bloodline series, he claims they were not the basis for the sculpture. Even so the atmosphere in the gallery seemed to equivocate between uncertainty and hope. Will these imagined images of children reveal the possibility of fulfillment in ways their parents never did? Rather than suggesting despair, which he is careful to avoid, Zhang is interested in portraying memories that will awaken a more challenging, if not more optimistic view of life for China in a new global environment.
The author wishes to thank Pace Gallery for its help in arranging time with the artist, Zhang Xiaogang, for purposes of clarifying many of the points raised in this review, and for the indispensable translations of Ms. Echo He.
510 W. 25th St. // NY, NY
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The History Boy
Zhang Xiaogang’s masterly paintings inspired by life under Mao have made him one of China’s hottest exports.
One afternoon in Amsterdam 16 years ago, Zhang Xiaogang came out of the Van Gogh Museum and had to sit down: He was so depressed that he thought he might collapse. For three months the Chinese artist, then 34, had wandered the museums of northern Europe, seeing for the first time the actual canvases he’d spent much of his life studying in books. Ever since 1979, his second year of art school—when China’s opening to the West first exposed him to painters like van Gogh, Picasso and Magritte—Zhang had looked to Europe for a way around the staid socialist realism favored by his teachers. In the decade after leaving school, despite finding it hard to show his work in a climate that still preferred party-line art, he had slowly begun to make a name for himself as a painter of startling, melancholy dreamscapes, an artist who shunned explicitly Chinese subjects in favor of surrealist, Expressionist explorations of his own mind.
That afternoon at the Van Gogh Museum, however, he had an epiphany. “I realized, I have no connection to these artists,” he remembers today,sitting in the enormous Beijing studio that he moved into last year. “And suddenly I felt very hopeless.” He returned home and didn’t paint for a year.
That Zhang is now a leading figure in the recent explosion of Chinese art onto the international scene—and the subject of a solo show at PaceWildenstein gallery in New York, beginning October 31—is a direct result of that crisis in Amsterdam. “I saw then that I had to return to my own living environment and find my own source,” says the artist, a bespectacled 50-year-old with a shaved head and a cerebral manner. In mimicking European painters, he had overlooked the one subject that provoked his deepest feelings: living through the confused ecstasy of China in the Sixties and Seventies and then seeing that past buried during the new age of China’s reform and economic boom.
The particulars of Zhang’s childhood in Cultural Revolution–era Chengdu, in central China, sound shocking to foreign ears, but his trials were fairly standard for a person of his generation: the years without schooling, the parents shipped off to re-education camps, the Red Guard factions fighting in the streets. Because almost no one was spared, Chinese looking back on that time don’t often dwell on tales of individual suffering. Making art about the period would demand a way of integrating private experience with collective memory.
His first attempt to “face our history,” as he puts it, was “Tiananmen Square,” a 1993 series of paintings presenting a shrunken, pastel-colored Gate of Heavenly Peace—where Mao led major rallies and where his huge portrait still hangs—dwarfed by a foreground of the square’s richly textured pavement. He’d taken on one of Communist China’s ultimate symbols, one that was just as central to the fervor of the Sixties as it became to the protesters of 1989, but Zhang still didn’t feel he’d cracked the problem of how to capture Chinese history.
Then later that year, while visiting his parents, he came across an old photograph of his mother and father posing stiffly with him and his two olderbrothers. Such studio portraits had been extremely popular in China in the Fifties and Sixties, and the shot of the Zhang family was typically imprinted with ideology: The artist’s father wore a Mao jacket and, though he was a party official, a workman’s cap. Here was the quintessential image of life under Mao, offering unimagined possibilities to a figurative painter. “It’s as if you pushed open a door and suddenly found yourself in a garden,” he says.
Thus began “Bloodlines,” a series of grave, disquieting canvases—“false portraits,” Zhang once called them—showing wet-eyed parents and children gazing blankly out of gray-toned backgrounds. Red lines run in and around the figures, and occasionally a blemish appears, like the wearing away of paper in a photo album. The portraits, which can be as large as eight and a half feet in width, don’t depict any one particular family, Zhang says, least of all his own. He never paints from photographs or live models, and his fictional families often consist of multiple versions of the same pensive face.
With its complicated, subtle melding of nostalgia and grief, “Bloodlines” gained Zhang immediate notice: inclusion in the 1995 Venice Biennale, a 1997 solo exhibition at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, and two shows at Max Protetch gallery in New York, in 2000 and 2005. Last year he was scooped up by PaceWildenstein, the first blue-chip New York gallery to open a branch in China. A solo Zhang show is now being planned at Pace Beijing for 2009. His work has also taken a sudden leap in auction value. In 2006 a “Bloodlines” portrait fetched $979,200; this year Sotheby’s sold another for $6 million.
In keeping with his new prominence, Zhang moved from Chengdu to Beijing in 1999. But other than the size of his studio—which fills a converted motorcycle-helmet factory—he seems little affected by his success. “The first time I heard that my art sold for so much, it really scared me,” he says, laughing. As in Chengdu, his studio is decorated with pictures of his daughter, now 14. (Divorced from the girl’s mother for almost 10 years, he remarried in 2007.)
Zhang’s current exhibition, at PaceWildenstein’s West 25th Street location, is called “Revision”—a loaded word in the China of the artist’s youth, where being branded a “revisionist,” someone who distorted Marxist fundamentals, could mean one’s ruin. In this context, the word takes on an alternative meaning. “These are all new works,” Zhang explains, “and they’re completely different from the stuff that everybody’s known me for.” He’s showing sculpture for the first time, including babies based on photos of himself and his daughter as infants, and his new paintings are almost devoid of human figures. One shows a pair of twin beds, a ragged lightbulb illuminating a pillow embroidered with a political slogan. Another depicts a gigantic dam, an image that, he says, “in the Chinese consciousness of the Fifties and Sixties was considered to be the most beautiful landscape.”
Arne Glimcher, chairman of PaceWildenstein, says the new pieces are a natural outgrowth of, rather than a departure from, Zhang’s earlier work. “I think he’s continuing to rebuild the past,” Glimcher says. “But what strikes me the most is that they are without irony. There’s almost no Western figurative art dealing with subjects like he does that is not ironic.”
As an artist so steeped in historical feeling, Zhang now finds himself in an odd position. Westerners, who represent the majority of those collecting his work, are the least able to feel the full depth of meaning in it. “The source from which I draw my inspiration for these pieces is very difficult for Westerners,” he says. “Misreading is unavoidable.”
Some mistakes are simple: People assume the dam in his recent painting must be the controversial Three Gorges Dam, but, says Zhang, it is just a generalized, imagined dam, not any one in particular; critics invoke China’s one-child policy in discussing “Bloodlines,” though the policy came well after the period that series portrays. But there’s also a quieter, deeper divide between Western and Chinese perceptions. The Westerner looks at a rendering of Tiananmen Square and thinks it’s “about” the 1989 massacre, says Zhang. The Chinese viewer has a “more complicated emotion,” driven by the square’s association with multiple events, including hopeful rallies from the early Mao era, hysterical Red Guard meetings and the mass demonstrations of grief after the death of Premier Zhou Enlai.
Still, Zhang says, Westerners, like Chinese observers of European works, access foreign art mainly through aesthetic feeling, not historical thought. “We never lived in America or Europe, but pieces by their artists are emotional for us,” he says.
Riitta Valorinta, director of Finland’s Sara Hildén Art Museum, which last year became the first European museum to hold a major show of Zhang’s work, agrees that pinning down every historical reference isn’t essential. She points to the mastery of detail in the artist’s lightbulbs, his loudspeakers, his beds. “It is not necessary to understand everything,” she says. “What we see is enough.”
And, Zhang notes, the difference between China and the West is diminishing anyway. When he travels to New York for the opening of his show, it will be his third trip to the city. On his first visit, in 1996, he wandered around, marveling at all the galleries and artists. But when he came again last year, he wasn’t as excited by what he saw. “I had changed, and China had changed,” he says. “Now China’s more and more like America.”
As demand explodes for Chinese art, the country’s most expensive living painter copes with fragile health and staying relevant
Updated July 13, 2012 12:01 a.m. ET
As demand explodes for Chinese art, the country’s most expensive living painter, Zhang Xiaogang, copes with fragile health and staying relevant. Kelly Crow has details on Lunch Break. Photo: Mark Leong/Redux for The Wall Street Journal.
For the past year, China’s most expensive living artist hasn’t been allowed to paint, doctor’s orders.
Zhang Xiaogang, age 54, a Beijing-based painter whose hypnotic portraits have topped $10 million at auction, recently suffered a pair of heart attacks, and his doctors told him—for the first time in his three-decade career—to rest.
Few artists embody China’s art boom better than Mr. Zhang, who grew up amid the Cultural Revolution and gained fame for his large, haunting depictions of families dressed in Mao jackets and comrade’s caps. Yet his desire to keep breakneck pace with China’s developing art scene has taken a toll.
Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei is one of China’s superstar artists. Reuters
Mr. Zhang still spends his days at his soaring studio in a traditional village on the city’s outskirts. His major collectors include former Swiss ambassador Uli Sigg, Beijing entrepreneur Liu Lan and Chinese-Indonesian farming tycoon Budi Tek. His earliest works fetch higher sums than ever at auction: In April 2011, “Eternal Love,” a 1988 painting that he originally sold for $2,000, resold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for $10.2 million, an auction record for Chinese contemporary art.
But he said he’s still learning how to navigate the pressures and expectations of the job. Six weeks after that record sale, Mr. Zhang was sitting in his studio with his 18-year-old daughter when he clutched his chest, struggling to breathe. Soon after, he underwent emergency bypass surgery to repair a blocked artery in his heart, his second heart surgery in 10 months. Afterward, his doctor told the artist he had to dramatically alter his lifestyle: No more whiskey or cigarettes (he was smoking two packs of Zhongnanhai a day) and no work-related stress for a year.
When artists break out in art hubs like New York or London, they can usually look to experienced galleries to broker their sales and help manage their careers. China didn’t have a single privately run art gallery when Mr. Zhang got his start in the early 1980s. For a long stretch, he single-handedly managed his own career, juggling demands from dealers and collectors and occasionally making artworks on commission. (Mr. Zhang is now represented by Pace Gallery.)
Zhang Xiaogang in his Beijing studio in June. Mark Leong/Redux for The Wall Street Journal
Now, his health scare has given him an excuse to slow down and reassess his art. Of his roughly 600 oil paintings, a third are part of “Bloodlines,” a series he began in the early 1990s inspired by the kind of quasi-patriotic family portraits that were popular throughout China during the Cultural Revolution. In Mr. Zhang’s versions, these clusters of men, women and children appear glassy-eyed and unsmiling—bound by blood but possibly little else. Mr. Zhang has become indelibly linked to this series, and he continues to paint these works on occasion, even though they serve to criticize China’s Mao era more than its current political situation. But there are signs that demand could be tapering off: Dealers say an early “Bloodline” from 1994 can sell for as much as $8 million, but his recent versions of couples have sold for around $1.5 million. Mr. Zhang said some of his stress has come from his attempts to find his next big idea.
Mr. Tek, a collector who has paid as much as $6.7 million for Mr. Zhang’s work, said, “Getting a Zhang Xiaogang is like buying a historic movement frozen in art—he’s classic. But he should slow down on the ‘Bloodlines’ because they’re not as relevant anymore.”
During his hiatus from painting, Mr. Zhang is turning to a different medium: bronze. He is casting groups of large figures in bronze and will paint them by hand—a nod to the colorful polychrome statues that popped up throughout ancient Egypt and Ming-era China. Though he has dabbled in bronze occasionally, he has never tried this technique before. The figures themselves comprise his usual cast of “Bloodlines” characters—a boy in glasses, a girl with pigtails. Gary Xu, a cultural historian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has seen the clay models and calls them “fantastic.”
Mr. Zhang is part of an elite group of painters—including Fang Lijun, Zeng Fanzhi, Yang Shaobin, and Yue Minjun—who were once ignored by China’s political leaders but are now hailed as cultural success stories. Beginning in the late 1980s, they experimented with modernism, expressionism and Pop at a time when Soviet Realism still held sway. Eventually, they helped kick-start a lasting conversation about what China’s new art could look like. And as China’s economy skyrocketed, so have their asking prices and reputations. Now, film director Zhang Yang said, these artists are “better known in China than most movie stars.”
Mr. Zhang’s friends say he has never felt entirely comfortable in the role of celebrity. He doesn’t wear designer clothing, preferring jeans and Converse sneakers. For his part, he said one reason he started drinking heavily years ago was so he could shake off his natural shyness.
In May, Mr. Zhang sat in a hotel overlooking the vast Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, which had become a warren of art-filled booths for the region’s major contemporary-art fair, Art HK. Glancing at the crowds, he said, “You have to use your imagination to conjure how it was before all this.”
Anyone who visits Mr. Zhang’s Beijing studio will likely notice his “idea board.” This wall-size panel is covered with items he has pinned up for inspiration—from photos of artists he admires, like Franz Kafka and singer Sinéad O’Connor, to movie-ticket stubs and photos of his first studio apartment in Kunming, the city in southwestern Yunnan province where he was born in 1958.
Memory is the central theme of Mr. Zhang’s art—what we choose to remember, forget or distort. In 1966, Mr. Zhang was 8 years old and living with his family in Chengdu in southwestern China when Mao Zedong ushered in the Cultural Revolution, a decadelong attempt to rid China of anything antique or foreign. Schools were shut down and his parents were sent away to separate work camps to be “re-educated,” leaving him and his three young brothers to fend largely for themselves. Their mother, who was later diagnosed as schizophrenic, left them pencils and a sheaf of paper with instructions to doodle whenever they felt bored or tempted to roam outside.
Eventually, Mr. Zhang befriended a former art teacher who taught him the basics of watercolors. At 17, he took his pens and paper with him when he was assigned by the government to plant potatoes and wheat at a mountainside re-education farm. By the end of his two-year stint, a local party official had pulled him from the fields to paint revolutionary slogans. “Art helped me transcend the miserable situation,” he said.
‘Bloodline: Big Family No. 1,’ from 1994, which Sotheby’s sold for about $8.4 million last fall in Hong Kong. More works by Zhang Sotheby’s
When China reopened its colleges in 1977, Mr. Zhang was one of only two students in his province admitted to the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in Chongqing. He was a decade younger than his 20 classmates. There, he first encountered images of Western art—Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, modern abstract painters—along with Soviet Realists. “It was like going from hell to heaven,” he said.
After graduation, though, he spent a decade in an existential, creative funk. He married an outgoing woman in Chengdu who loved rock music and later owned a bar. He spent his days teaching art at his alma mater and his nights drinking. His mother’s schizophrenia worsened. At age 26, he suffered a gastric hemorrhage and he was hospitalized for two months.
Weng Ling, artistic director of New York’s China Center, met him in Chongqing in 1986. He was an “angry artist, writing poems and painting pieces that looked like sad songs,” she said. Leng Lin, an art-history student at the time who has since become his dealer at Pace, also saw a show of Mr. Zhang’s art around that time and said the artist was primarily painting figures in toga-like robes surrounded by symbols culled from pagan, Christian and Buddhist faiths. “He was wrestling with Europe,” Mr. Leng said.
In 1989, Mr. Zhang painted a red woman sitting on the banks of the Lethe, the mythical Greek sea of forgetting. Several months later, he watched the student protests at Tiananmen Square. By that point, he had decided to abandon the Western motifs he had been exploring and go hunting for some way to capture China’s collective identity.
He found it in an empty box of cookies. While visiting his parents in 1992 after his first trip to Europe, he noticed his mother dumping a batch of black-and-white family photographs into a leftover bakery box. As he sifted through the images, he realized he had never seen these pictures of himself as a baby or his parents as their younger, livelier selves. He had just become a father himself, and he felt bound more closely to the unfamiliar faces in the photos. The juxtaposition proved to be his epiphany: China, after the Cultural Revolution, was one big dysfunctional family, too.
He started amassing family photographs from friends, even peddlers, paying a yuan or two apiece. Some patterns began to emerge: The families rarely smiled, and their flat features and workmanlike attire stood apart from the centuries of sensual Western portraiture he’d studied. If anything, their stoic expressions evoked scroll paintings of Ming-era warriors. He began painting a series of large family portraits. Since one of Mr. Zhang’s brothers suffered an eye condition, the boys he painted were often cross-eyed. He also started threading a red line between his characters. He called his paintings “Bloodlines.”
In 1994, he sent a few images to Johnson Chang, a dealer in Hong Kong. The dealer wrote back: “These pictures are the very best I’ve ever seen from you. Do more.”
Mr. Sigg, the Swiss collector, also visited Mr. Zhang in Chengdu around this time. He immediately commissioned a “Bloodline” for his dining room. Mr. Sigg said he realized the series would be a hit because whenever he threw a dinner party, his guests from both East and West gravitated to the piece, mesmerized. “After those paintings, he was on top,” Mr. Sigg said. “Suddenly, he was the new face of China.”
In 1995, Mr. Zhang was invited to exhibit his “Bloodlines” at the Venice Biennale. The following fall, Sungari Auctions organized the first-ever auction of contemporary Chinese art in mainland China, and one of Mr. Zhang’s “Bloodlines” adorned the catalog cover. The work sold to a dealer for several hundred dollars, and was later bought by Guy Ullens, a Belgian collector who made a fortune in the food industry.
The artist kept painting new variations on the theme, but by 1999 he began to worry he was repeating himself. Things in his personal life also declined: He got divorced, packed a duffle bag with $3,000 in cash, moved to Beijing, and threw a mattress on the floor of his empty apartment. He started drinking heavily again. He was 41.
His sales were picking up, though. New York dealer Max Protetch showed his new paintings—mainly close-up portraits of people’s sleepy faces—and sold out. In 2001, Mr. Zhang was featured in 14 gallery and museum shows around the world. To keep up with demand, he started working on fresh series exploring ideas about amnesia and memory. But that year he also painted around 10 “Bloodline” works “to satisfy the dealers.”
The first sign of heart trouble hit in 2003, when he returned from visiting his parents and felt dizzy for a week. Initially, he blamed the city’s high altitude, but when a doctor took his blood pressure, it was 180/140. He started taking medicine to treat it.
“I just felt like a machine, forced to work,” he said recently, in an interview conducted through a translator. “I felt like I could not decide things for myself.” He moved studios five times between 2000 and 2005, in part to accommodate more visitors. Western collectors who were increasingly following China’s economic rise were also discovering Chinese contemporary art, and it wasn’t unusual for him to have eight delegations a day filtering through his door. Some sought favor by bringing him expensive wine or inviting him on vacation. A few cried and told him they were so moved by his art. He began to wonder if he should get a steady gallery to handle his sales.
Pretty soon, newly wealthy industrialists and entrepreneurs from China were stopping by in addition to the Western collectors—further evidence that the global wealth boom that had pushed up prices for all sorts of contemporary art had also hit home.
In March 2006, Sotheby’s held its first sale of contemporary Asian art in New York. Mr. Zhang’s portrait of a young man, “Bloodline Series: Comrade No. 120,” sold for just under $1 million, nearly tripling its high estimate. That fall in London, British collector Charles Saatchi paid a record $1.5 million for a 1995 “Bloodline.” Mr. Saatchi resold the same work five years later for $7.2 million, nearly quadrupling his investment.
By 2008, Mr. Zhang decided to exert some more control over his circumstances. He got remarried. He also signed a contract with PaceWildenstein (now Pace), one of the first New York galleries to open an outpost in Beijing. For his first solo show there, he decided not to include a single “Bloodline.” Instead, he tried to visualize what happens to memories that get revised and distorted, particularly troubling ones. These canvases included delicate still-lifes of light bulbs, beds, pens. Most sold for around $500,000 apiece, according to Pace.
Some expert advice on powering through a creative dry patch
Examine Your Vices. People often rely on alcohol, drugs or even workaholic habits to fuel their creativity, but too much will “drag you down,” says Jeffrey Kottler, author of “Divine Madness: Ten Stories of Creative Struggle” and a professor of counseling at California State University in Fullerton. “Ask yourself if the price you’re paying is really worth it.”
Say “No.” Sometimes people churn out the familiar for fear of being unable to come up with anything new, says Barry Panter, director of Los Angeles’s American Institute of Medical Education, who studies the psychology of artists. Next time someone asks for more of the same, turn them down and start experimenting.
Embrace the Fallow Season. People who feel stuck creatively tend to think long and hard about their circumstances—a state of dissatisfied solitude that often leads to change and a creative reboot, says Mr. Kottler. “The best work often comes to you while you think you’re doing nothing.”
The artist’s pace didn’t slacken until the end of the year, around the time Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and the art market began to slow in response to global economic turmoil. In 2009, only 16 of his paintings came up for auction, compared with 64 the year before, according to auction database Artnet. That year, the top auction price for one of his works—$2.5 million—was paid by a collector from Asia, not the West. The art market experienced a similar shift overall that year, with buyers in New York remaining wary even as art sales perked up across Asia. Prices for Chinese antiques and scroll paintings particularly ballooned: A Qing vase sold for a record $86 million in 2010, and a watercolor of an eagle by Qi Baishi fetched $65 million in 2011.
In the spring of 2010, Mr. Zhang’s mother died in her sleep. Mr. Zhang said he started drinking more heavily. That November, he suffered his first heart attack. Three days later, he was back home from surgery and hurrying to finish eight paintings he wanted to include in a show set to open the following month at Beijing’s Today Art Museum. He wasn’t fully rested, though, and the workload quickly caught up with him. He intended to fill three galleries with work but only wound up using two. At least one large work from that period—an aerial portrait of four boys lying in separate beds—still sits unfinished in his studio.
On May 22, 2011, his chest started to tighten again. Three days later, he was rushed to the hospital. His doctors insisted he put his career on pause.
Mr. Zhang set out to devote his hiatus year to reading. He started with a doorstop-size tome on Chinese art history. (He read as far as the Song dynasty.) He said he has quit smoking, rarely drinks alcohol and spends his mornings walking several miles around his neighborhood.
He has flouted his doctors’ orders a few times, painting another “Bloodline” for Pace’s fair booth in Hong Kong and a portrait for the gallery’s booth at Art Basel in Switzerland. He has also begun plotting out a series of parent-child portraits, arranged so that the viewer can sense the child’s perspective, the parent looming large.
But he has funneled most of his creative energy into the new bronze sculptures. He began experimenting with the form five years ago and still finds the format challenging—his studio is spotted with rejected bronzes. Last year, he hired a pair of young sculptors to help him mold 10 figures, from a 4-foot-tall bust of a sailor boy to a larger-than-life baby. A few weeks ago, he sent their plaster casts to a foundry in upstate New York; this winter, he’ll come to the U.S. to paint a few before Pace unveils them to the public next spring. “Maybe my new stage is just beginning,” he said.
Heather Russell, senior specialist of Contemporary and Modern Asian Art, interviews Political Pop artist Li Shan, a leading figure in the Chinese avant-garde movement. Li is best-known for his provocative portraits of Mao Zedong, and his work has been featured in art exhibitions worldwide, including at the 1993 Venice Biennale, the Brooklyn Museum in New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai.
Heather Russell: I know that you went to secondary school and university in Shanghai during the era of Mao Zedong and the Red Guards, before, during, and after the Cultural Revolution. Did this affect your work as an artist? If so, how?
Li Shan: I dropped out of Heilongjiang University in 1963, and was admitted to Shanghai Theater Academy to study Fine Arts in 1964. During that time most major art schools had stopped enrolling students, and Shanghai Theater Academy was the only one that was still open for enrollment. It was my first formal Fine Arts training.
In 1966, the Cultural Revolution broke out. Classes were suspended and all of my peers joined the Red Guards. No matter what you thought about the Revolution, you had to participate, otherwise you risked becoming the target of criticism. At that time, I already had a strong interest in art, and becoming an artist was my dream. That was also the reason why I chose to study at the Shanghai Theater Academy. But during the Cultural Revolution, the intellectuals and artists were the first to be attacked. Many intellectuals such as Wu Han (Chinese, 1909–1969), Deng Tuo (Chinese, 1912–1966), and Liao Mosha (Chinese, 1907–1991) were severely criticized and imprisoned. It was under these difficult circumstances that I realized the risk of pursuing a career in art. Historically, the artistic and cultural communities are always among the first to be affected during major political upheavals.
I was very young at the time, and I had thought about changing my career. During the Cultural Revolution, students from major art academies, including Shanghai Theater Academy, the Central Academy of Drama, Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and the Central Conservatory of Music were not safe places to work post-graduation, because many of them were considered to be 516 Members, or the “black sheep” of society. I graduated in 1968 and remained unemployed until 1972. One of my high school classmates studied in the Harbin Institute of Technology, and he graduated the same year I did. He arranged for me to get job at the Chongqing Arsenal right after graduation. I remember writing him a letter asking if he could he find me a job in the Arsenal, hopefully designing propaganda paraphernalia, because I was an art student. Even though it ultimately didn’t work out, the experience of working there greatly influenced me.
During the Revolution, artistic practice was standardized throughout the country. Individuals were not allowed access to certain forms of artistic expression, so I had to suppress my own creative impulses for a long time.
HR: I know that from an early age, certain intellectual texts, such as books on quantum physics and Western writing, which were prohibited during the Cultural Revolution, have been very important to you as an individual and as an artist. What books, authors, and theories do you think have affected your work the most? And why?
LS: I have had different spiritual mentors at different stages in my life. When I was in junior high school, I had read some Fine Arts books that mentioned Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452–1519). His masterpieces had all deeply impressed me, especially TheLast Supper and the Mona Lisa. He was not only a master painter, but also an accomplished scientist, architect, and anatomist. I admire him a lot.
During my college years, I was introduced to various books about different art schools and movements. I especially came to appreciate the works of Henri Rousseau (French, 1875–1933), the Primitivist artist, and his life story. Rousseau’s works are extremely pure, real, and primal. I believe that paying attention to primal instincts is very important for artists.
The artwork that we see is often an artificial construct that has been carefully refined by the artist.
In addition, I had also read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and a few other books about quantum mechanics. In 1993, for my experiments in BioArt, I started to read Gregor Johann Mendel’s works. He was a Catholic priest, but he was also the founder of genetics. Although many of the books I’ve mentioned are scientific texts, I believe that the ability to challenge traditional thinking, like Stephen Hawking and Werner Heisenberg did, and the courage to explore the unknown, like Gregor Mendel, are both key characteristics of all great art.
HR: You are known as one of the most influential and famous Contemporary Shanghai artists. Do you feel that living and painting in Shanghai, versus Beijing, has impacted your work and philosophy as an artist?
LS: There are many differences between Shanghai and Beijing, including politics, economy, history, culture, etc.
Politically speaking, the biggest difference between Shanghai and Beijing is that because Shanghai was once a colony, Western influence has had a profound cultural impact on things like lifestyle and interpersonal relationships. But in Beijing, traditional Chinese culture is much more prevalent. Comparisons have often been made between the two cities: Shanghai is typically seen as representing the bourgeoisie, while Beijing is thought of as the proletariat. But Shanghai is also viewed with a lot of mixed feelings.
Economically speaking, before the Chinese economic reform in the 1970s, xenophobia was very much a part of the Chinese mentality. Shanghai used to be a dream for many people. They wanted to go there to drink coffee and shop for clothing and shoes. After the economic reform, many major cities in China developed rapidly, and people became wealthier and wealthier. The xenophobic mentality that had persisted for so long gradually died down, as did the admiration for Shanghai.
In terms of culture and history, Shanghai is the gathering place for an older generation of artists, including writers, painters, musicians, etc. The majority of the first generation of artists who studied abroad came back to Shanghai, even if they left from other cities, they chose to move here after they returned to China. After the Chinese Civil War, there was a nation-wide turn towards the Soviet Union as a source of cultural influence. Artists began using the Chistyakov system, and drama students followed Stanislavski. But Shanghai was different. Shanghai attracted many Modern Chinese master painters such as Liu Haisu (Chinese, 1896–1994), Lin Fengmian (Chinese, 1900–1991), Wu Dayu (Chinese, 1903–1988), Guan Liang (Chinese, 1900–1986), and their students. At that time, the artworks being shown in exhibitions everywhere else mostly featured themes of workers, peasants, soldiers, and revolutionary heroes. Shanghai was the only place where you could still see paintings of osprey, reeds, and hydrangeas. It was also the only place where the Chinese tradition of Modern Art wasn’t interrupted. These masters and their students formed an underground community in Shanghai. I felt very lucky to have been able to live in such an atmosphere, and be exposed to what we called ‘Modernism’ when I came to Shanghai in 1964.
During the Cultural Revolution, the library of the Shanghai Theatre Academy was known for its rich collection of books. Professor Min Xiwen (Chinese, b.1918), who oversaw the library, was the area’s leading authority on Impressionist Art. Nearly all of the Chinese translations of Western texts on Impressionism were done by him. And he himself was a master of still-life painting. Thanks to Professor Min, I was exposed to Western classics through the books that he had secretly lent to me in the reading room. I would not have had that kind of opportunity if it wasn’t for the general cultural environment in Shanghai at that time. If I had gone to Beijing instead of Shanghai, the Li Shan (Chinese, b.1942) you see today would have been completely different.
As for the difference between the artistic communities in the two cities, artists in Beijing like to live close to each other, and their works tend to look similar. If one artist’s works were shown in an exhibition and gained a buyer’s market, other artists would begin emulating that particular style. But the artists in Shanghai are very scattered and individualized. Shanghai artists focus on developing their own styles, and they express their personal dreams and ideals in their work. As a result, Beijing artists pay closer attention to the choice of subject matter in art creation, whereas Shanghai artists focus more on the exploration of different artistic languages. That’s why it’s harder to curate an exhibition in Shanghai than it is in Beijing and Chengdu. Critics and curators often feel frustrated when they come to Shanghai, because it’s too difficult to find different artists creating works around the same theme. They can’t find what they are looking for.
HR: Your work is often referred to as Political Pop Art. Do you accept or reject this label? Do you associate your art with a specific movement?
LS: The term Chinese Political Pop was initially proposed by Li Xianting during the late 1970s in order to better sort and classify Chinese Contemporary Art, and to facilitate artistic discussion. It was chosen mostly because there was no alternative. There was a long debate about the term, and it was decided that Political Pop Art would be used temporarily; little did we know that it would be written into history.
On the surface, Chinese Political Pop Art is similar to Western Pop Art. They have the same artistic language, and both appeal to the general public. Much like the works of Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987), they are very straightforward, and directly comment on the present commercial and political environments.
However, comparatively speaking, Chinese Political Pop Art has a deeper meaning. The movement is about artists expressing their thoughts on Chinese history, culture, and the social environment, as well as their feelings toward their personal experiences. So each artist and each work is distinct.
I have no complaints about being labeled as a Political Pop artist, but I think having a conversation directly with the artist is necessary if one wishes to acquire a deeper understanding of the work.
HR: Your most internationally acclaimed series of paintings belongs to your decades-long Rouge series that features a young, effeminate Mao Zedong with a lotus flower in his mouth, as well as other political leaders, such as United States President Ronald Regan. Can you explain how you were inspired to create this series and what the message is behind these works? What does the title mean? Why did you focus on a younger Mao, and only create a handful of paintings of an elderly Mao?
LS: Concepts like “effeminate” and “unisex” are unique in China because defining them falls into a cultural gray zone. Regardless of time or place, there are always particular cultural ideas that can’t be easily explained in black and white terms. It feels contradictory because we are so used to defining things in extremes: left versus right, good versus bad, right versus wrong, etc. However, this gray zone is a constant state of affairs in Chinese society.
For artists, this gray area creates a very interesting environment. This uncertain state is usually linked to phrases like melancholy and ambiguity. I used the image of Mao Zedong in my paintings as a cultural symbol. People have an ingrained impression of older Mao, one that’s powerful and authoritarian. However, middle-aged and younger Mao is not attached to the same kind of preconceived historical, cultural, and social signals. I feel that the image of middle-aged Mao always has a trace of melancholy and ambiguity, while younger Mao is ambitious and vibrant, which leaves a clear image in peoples’ minds. It returns Mao to the primitive state I mentioned previously. This unfamiliar image can lead audiences to rediscover that grey area, separate them from the extremist historical period that they are familiar with, and change the “cultural genes” of that age.
HR: You often create Mao Zedong portraits with images of geese or psychedelic versions of the lotus flower in your Rouge series. Can you explain what the geese and lotus represent?
LS: Geese are lazy, and the lotus flower is tacky. I feel that both of these symbols match the theme of “rogue” perfectly.
HR: You have worked on several highly acclaimed works in your Reading series, including large-scale paintings of animals typically covered in fish, dragonflies, or butterflies, painted in an almost naíve manner. What can you tell us about the inspiration and meaning of this series?
LS: On Wikipedia, these pieces are categorized as BioArt. These works apparently have a certain connection to advancements in biology. In the 1950s, scientists discovered the fundamental element of the life, the gene. At the same time, they discovered the mechanism of heredity. When a human being masters the technology that could potentially enable us to create new lives, this poses a huge challenge to traditional ideology, religion, and cultural history. These kinds of events are too significant for anyone, including artists such as myself, to ignore. It’s natural that artists would start associating this event with their artistic creations, and that BioArt would become a new category within the field of Contemporary Art.
I started to think about BioArt when I came back from the Venice Biennale in 1993. From 1994 to 1996, I had the opportunity to stay in New York to start preparing for my own BioArt projects. I read books in related fields, including college textbooks. My basic concept for BioArt is that it must be living. Some of my paintings that you’ve seen are actually proposals and drafts of a new species that I want to create in a lab. I spent two or three years on the preparation, until early 1998, when I wrote my first essay about BioArt and completed a proposal on how to create a living artwork. I named this proposal Reading. But, as you can imagine, it was very difficult to find a scientist in China who wanted to work with an artist to create a new species. It was not until 2007 that I found an expert at the Shanghai Agricultural Science Academy to collaborate with me in cultivating a batch of pumpkins. That was my first living BioArt piece. I found that project to be very meaningful because I was able to present the basic concept of BioArt, the process of making BioArt, and the form of BioArt through the project. Reading is also the first BioArt proposal in history.
At this point, people might not be familiar with BioArt yet, in which case, they can use Reading as an example. The defining characteristic of BioArt is that the work must be living, it should experience the entire process of conceiving, being born, growing up, aging, and passing away. It should also be able to reproduce. Therefore, it’s completely different from the art that we’re used to. BioArt work has to be created through genetic alteration, designed by artists, and executed by scientists. In the current state, it’s very hard for artists to complete a BioArt work by him or herself.
At the end of last year, I had a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei, Taiwan. One of the works exhibited was called The Possibility of Random Expression. This is a project that I did in collaboration with a professor at Tsinghua University. The project took a year to complete, but it was very unsatisfying. What I most wanted to learn about in the lab was the process of genetic alteration. But for safety purposes, I wasn’t given access to that information. In the end, I was only able to see the 72-hour growing process of the embryo after genetic alteration. This experience made me realize the difficulty in working with scientists. It would be wonderful if I could have my own lab.
I travelled to Beijing three times for this project, to communicate with the scientist I was working with. And during the discussion, I raised a new concept. Based on my understanding of molecular biology, gene expression is divided into two main parts, Transcription (DNA to RNA) and Translation (RNA to protein). Both of these processes are regulated by a control system, which determines the appearance of each life created. I wondered, if we could disable this control system, and let genes express randomly, what would the end result look like? It could be something unimaginable, but in theory, this is the only way a life could gain freedom. Would you be willing to see a life that’s created through this random gene expression? It could be a monster, but it’s a life that’s completely free.
HR: Yes, absolutely! I think it’s very exciting. A monster can be beautiful. Who is to define what a monster is?
So I guess our final question is, what is your next step, where do you go from here, and where is your next gallery exhibition or museum show?
LS: Early next year, I will have an exhibition in Singapore. This exhibition will show my early Extension series. Many important works in this series had been destroyed many years ago, so I wanted to take this opportunity to recreate these works. The curator of this exhibition will probably be Gao Minglu.
Although I have run into many obstacles in the process of creating BioArt, and none of my previous works, except for the Pumpkin project, was truly satisfying, I would still continue to create works, most likely in labs. I’m also going to continue with the painting and photography side of BioArt. These are all proposals for my future BioArt projects. But the sad news is that, according to one scientist, it would take 100 years to complete all of these projects.
This interview was originally conducted in Chinese, and was translated by Ning Lu, associate manager of the artnet Price Database Fine Art and Design and Chunmei Jia, intern at artnet Price Database Fine Art and Design. Click here to read the Chinese version.
Heather Russell is a senior specialist in Asian Modern and Contemporary Art at artnet Auctions.
Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, part V, 2007, 35 mm, black-and-white film transferred to DVD. Total running time: 91 minutes. Images courtesy of the artist; Shanghart Gallery, Shanghai and Beijing; and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris.
I curated Yang Fudong’s work for the first time in 2004 when I was an associate curator of an exhibition in Japan. I invited Yang Fudong to preview his film Backyard—Hey! Sun is Rising. Since then, he has asked me to write about his work—for his solo shows at GL Strand Gallery in Denmark (2008) and at the Hara Museum in Japan (2009). In 2010, Zhang Yaxuan and I put together screenings of Yang Fudong’s films and related seminars at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, and the Beijing Film Academy.
In this interview I sought to push the envelope by examining his mise-en-scène techniques in The Fifth Night, part I. In addition, I wanted to set the anchor in the question “does spiritual life exist at all?” because it is what concerns Yang Fudong the most.
When I watched The Fifth Night in the exhibition Useful Life 2010 at the ShanghART Gallery, I was very moved by it. Seven screens formed seven scrolls and they each seemed to start at a different point in time. The stories of seven young people, with their footsteps and dreams, were told in a calm yet complex fashion. It was Yang Fudong’s unique calmness. It was still his own escapism, the dreamlike quality of his other works. There were still mixed time periods and characters, and mixed sets—artificial and real locations. And it was still beautiful and elegant. The stories were told from seven different perspectives and jumped from one to another. What happened a second ago became the past. It felt familiar in that sense. The Fifth Night is not only about Yang Fudong’s aesthetic preferences, but also about his new approaches to time in narrative. Through this interview I discovered his intentions for The Fifth Night, part II, as well as the artist’s ideas behind the making of both works.
Li Zhenhua Can you briefly talk about the relationship between the film installation The Fifth Night (2010) and the video installation The Fifth Night, part II (2010)? Part one was exhibited at the ShanghART Gallery and part two at the Eighth Shanghai Biennial. You mentioned that part two was a by-product of part one. I’m curious about how the two pieces came about through different forms.
Yang Fudong I should start by talking about the film Dawn Mist, Separation Faith (2009). During the shooting of this film, I wondered if, and how, I could make another art piece out of the same production. I realized that a lot of takes were simply discarded in the editing room, like in Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest (2003–2007) and some other shorts I did. I would shoot the same shot five, ten, 20, or more times. At the end of the day, I would pick the best take and edit it into the actual piece. Why did it have to be that particular take? Where did all the bad takes go? Shouldn’t they exist even if they were not perfect? In other words, should I reveal my working process by showing multiple takes as well as the mistakes I made? I pondered over different possibilities. So I chose to make Dawn Mist, Separation Faith only out of takes that were “no good.” It was shot in the summer of 2008. It is a film that consists of only nine shots, or, say, a film installation with nine projections. So even before making The Fifth Night, I considered trying out different lenses and perspectives that I had never used before. But none of the ideas were very concrete until I was asked to participate in the show Useful Life 2010. It was around the Chinese New Year in 2010 that I decided to make The Fifth Night.
LZ The Fifth Night is very different from Dawn Mist, Separation Faith.
YF Yes. Seven parallel screens form a line, and they connect with one another, imitating traditional Chinese long-roll painting.
LZ It feels like seven scrolls too.
YF I was trying to avoid it being like seven separate scrolls. The first version of The Fifth Night at ShanghART was more like a live film on multiple screens. It made use of camera movements and mixed lenses with a variety of depths of field, including wide-angle, standard 35 mm, and long lenses. It created what I call a “little midnight theater” feel by slight and gradual shifts in the framing, and slow dolly movements. My first instinct then was to shoot from different angles simultaneously so that, when projected, it would look like a live feed.
Yang Fudong, The Fifth Night, part one; 2010; seven-channel film installation, black-and-white, sound. Total running time: 10 minutes, 37 seconds.
LZ Do you allow rehearsals during the shoot? Do you let your actors run through the action? Are there technical rehearsals for camera positions and such? How similar are yours to the theatrical kind?
YF I definitely do rehearsals. I need them to take into account all of the details. I chose a relatively empty location at the Shanghai Film Shooting Base, the famous film-production factory in Chedun. It appears to be a city plaza surrounded by 1930s-style buildings. I chose to shoot at night because it feels more like a theater stage with its fake scenery and artificial lighting. Before I settled on this idea, I was fantasizing about moving the production to a beach, to shoot a group of boys, their youthful bodies in the sun. Their body and muscle movements as they work, play, and make love. But considering the budget and resources we had at the time, it was not practical. However, I found that night shoots in an artificial set suited my taste and temperament. It actually worked out for the atmosphere I wanted to create; it also added drama and disguised some clumsiness.
Yang Fudong, Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, part IV, 2006, 35 mm, black-and-white film transferred to DVD. Total running time: 70 minutes.
LZ I noticed that since Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest (SIBF), you seem to be increasingly interested in utilizing artificial scenery. In SIBF, part V, the only real location was Xian Qiang Fang Restaurant, one of Shanghai’s colonial places that serves traditional food. But the sets in The Fifth Night and Dawn Mist, Separation Faith were either preexisting at the shooting base or you had them artificially constructed. How would you account for that?
YF In Chinese, there is an idiom “真情流露” [similar to the English idiom “to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve”]. The “heart” is not only transparent and open, it also has to be true. It is always a challenge to direct actors to express believably “true” feelings on screen. This is something I am slowly coming to realize. Another strange phrase evolved from that same idiom: “真假流露” [an alteration: “to wear one’s ambivalent heart on one’s sleeve”]. What if we expressed our true and fake emotions at the same time, in order to reach what we ultimately desire? Mixing both yin and yang is like painting truth and lies. I wondered how to achieve such imagery and how to show this thin line between the real and unreal through film techniques: set design, characters, costumes, and music. Is seeing really believing? After SIBF, I realized that the most important goal for me was to create a psychological experience. Estranged Paradise (2002) is what I call a “little intellectual film”; it involves people with knowledge and education. SIBF is more of an abstract one. They both interested me and made me excited. I can breathe their existence, be moved by them, and have a small telepathic moment with each, but I feel I cannot comprehend them 100 percent. I am deciphering more in the works I am making now; it’s an interesting change in myself.
LZ You mention “little intellectual films,” which reminds me of your Library Film Plan, your Museum Film Plan, and so forth. How would you describe the relationship between what you focus on for your films and the focus of narrative films in general? Also, what are the connections between the Library and Museum films and your film installations?
YF I’ll have to bring up The Fifth Night. The ways it was presented in the Useful Life 2010 show and in the Shanghai Biennial were very different. Even though they share the same subject, their concepts stand far apart. I call the second version in the Shanghai Biennial a “preview film,” while the version in Useful Life 2010 is a “compound-eye film”; a visual experiment to examine how an eye changes in reaction to images. The idea for part two matured before the initial production: capturing the video output from seven monitors that were connected to seven film cameras. Rather than the recorded film stock, this comprised the body of the piece on exhibit. That is what I meant by “preview film”—its raw-image quality, which included viewfinder frames, contradicts the actual results. I mentioned before how the making of Dawn Mist, Separation Faith inspired my artistic evolution: I found that what attracts me the most, and becomes my material, is the process of filmmaking itself. So for The Fifth Night, part II, I also included the last rehearsal and a bad take of each scene, in order to structure the work around the idea of a preview. In terms of content, part one and part two are very similar. Part one is a ten-minute, seven-screen film installation (it follows a clear, standard thread). Part two is a seven-screen video installation running for about 50 minutes—its narrative ends with the failure of the production. Additionally, there are three screens of photo documentation and a documentary projection, for a total of ten screens of content.
In this sense, the idea of “library films” arose in my mind after completing SIBF. On one hand, I felt that I should be more down-to-earth, avoiding forcing merely fantastic, beautiful expressions, or searching for utopian situations. Utopia is everywhere—it exists without our noticing. The Library Film Plan consists of shooting 22 films within the next ten to 15 years. Those films can be like books in a library, stored on bookshelves. I don’t mind if nobody ever opens them. But when opened, they should be interesting to “read.” So this gives me some pressure, goal, and direction. On the other hand, I want to know if spiritual life exists at all. Where is everyone’s spiritual life? I hope these films will help me find some answers. I especially want to make long films. The Library Film Plan should contain really long films, or feature-length films, some sort of forms that can hopefully be called films—film titles with colons, films resembling the idea of films or lengthy documentaries, and so on. I hope to look into people’s spiritual life by presenting and developing these ideas.
LZ You have a concept of reading film by watching it, but your final concern is whether people have a spiritual life. What you do drastically clashes with traditional film education. You challenge film conventions in your own unique way. Can you elaborate on your choices?
YF I have had an increasingly bigger budget, and thus a larger crew, each time, from SIBF to Dawn Mist, Separation Faith to The Fifth Night. My production teams look more and more like a standard-size, professional film crew. Sometimes I joke with my DP and other crew members, “Hey guys, looks like we are making a movie! We totally look like a professional film crew!” But I also keep asking them: “Do you think we are making a movie?” They say, “Of course we are making a movie.” I highly doubt everyone believes it, though. Here is what gets tricky: it’s a rhetorical question. Even though people who have collaborated with me for the longest time might still possess their own ideas of what a movie should be, I hope they are on the same page with me. If we see The Fifth Night as a little midnight theater, then part one should show the night before midnight, while part two should show the early morning after midnight. It’s the same location. The same time. The same theater. The focus of part one is to create a world where boys and girls meet and part randomly, like in a dream. We achieve this by applying regular shooting techniques, including sliding, panning, tilting, pushing, and pulling. The camera constantly moves to show individual young boys and girls in a meditative state in the middle of a small plaza at night. Moving cameras enhance this sense of loneliness: every night, there is only one person. Every night, there is only one soul wandering. The boys and girls meet with and part from one another through writing. Their encounters are brief, without deep exchanges. Maybe it is just part of the fantasy. What happened exactly? Or does it just look familiar?
LZ Why did you decide to use seven cameras and monitors for shooting The Fifth Night? Why not ten, or five?
YF Five is an odd number. Does a night look familiar? The piece is led by questions like these in order to build a particular atmosphere. On set, except when directing my actors and coordinating with my DP, I spent a long time gazing at all the monitors to oversee what was going on. But when I looked at them, I felt like I was watching a different movie. This excited me, because all the imperfections seemed to belong there. Booms in the shot, noises on set, bloopers, and mistakes mixed with actual dialogue became glamorous on the monitors. So I couldn’t help but wonder: What are we really monitoring? Why do we need to decide what’s good or bad? What are our standards?
LZ This takes us back to our discussion of the discarded takes from Dawn Mist, Separation Faith. Are these thoughts related?
YF Of course. However, The Fifth Night pushes this thinking further by making certain narrative changes. One change was driven by an alternate use of rehearsals. As directors, we judge what works by referring to what’s on the monitor—this is why there is always something fake about a piece of work. In rehearsals, we refer to actors’ performances on the monitor to make sure they work and end up in the final film. Yet the process itself can actually be part of the piece. I am interested in the realistic documentation on the monitor, before the real shoot. It inspires me. The best energy is there.
LZ But then why would you still make a version—part one, for the Useful Life 2010 show—that does not include any bad takes? I feel it is quite standard. It looks like a narrative film presented in the form of a seven-screen installation.
Yang Fudong, The Fifth Night, part two, 2010, seven-channel HD-video installation, black-and-white, sound. Total running time: 50 minutes.
YF I did this group show, also called Useful Life, with Xu Zhen and Yang Zhenzhong in a warehouse on Dongdaming Road in Shanghai, in 2000. It was a critical show for us. Ten years later, Lorenz Helbling, the owner of ShanghART, proposed that the three of us do a show again called Useful Life—it seemed timely to me. It was an opportunity to showcase our creative energy, ideas, inspirations, and potential. What were the other two artists doing? Would it be a show filled with everyone’s current work or a retrospective and nostalgic show? Each of us followed our conceptual and artistic development and presented something that made me very proud. The Fifth Night is a conceptual breakthrough for me; it’s more than just any piece of work.
LZ To be honest, I have mixed feelings about your work’s qualities. On one hand, I am very impressed by how smooth and slick your films look. Your seven screens unfold in front of an audience, neatly resembling seven scrolls. Your technical sophistication, mise-en-scènes, and skill directing actors are just amazing. Yet here lies my confusion: if you are already perfect technically and conceptually, are there other possibilities we can see in your work? I remember our previous conversation about Estranged Paradise (1997–2002), which carries a particular aesthetic: your very own signature work with the lens and soft-focus issues. However, we do not see anything like that in The Fifth Night.
YF Like you said, I produce images that “carry a colon.” If I make more or less the same work within a number of years, then how would those who are familiar with my body of work overcome their aesthetic fatigue? Going back to my previous state of mind and the methods I used in Estranged Paradise is absolutely impossible for me. Right after shooting each film, including SIBF, I suddenly become aware of the fact that the internal state I am in at that time is never going to return. The only way is to keep going forward. But how? It makes it feel necessary to overcome my fear, face reality, and gradually experiment with what I have never before tried.
LZ And this strengthens your style and aesthetics?
YF Yes. Does The Fifth Night look like No Snow on the Broken Bridge? Or is Dawn Mist, Separation Faith stylistically linked with SIBF? Such worries are warnings to me. My audience sees my work and reacts to it in a direct way. If I pretend that I am moving forward stylistically but actually am not, it doesn’t work for me. I have to be honest. I do not want to just talk about how I innovate when I move forward. What’s important is to truly reflect on my process, interests, and advantages and think about how I can apply them to my art.
LZ I would like to talk about synchronization in your work. In First Spring (2010), the program you collaborated on with Prada, you mixed up different time periods as well as different people’s identities, while in The Fifth Night, in the same location, seven young people pass by one another briefly and appear on separate screens. Did you purposefully conceive of the design for both pieces before the shoot?
YF When I produce visual work, I can barely make out what exactly is in my head. I want to make sense of it, and capture it with some clarity, even though it is full of ambiguity. When I was working with Prada, I vaguely sensed an urge to improvise. At the beginning, I was not sure what time frame to choose. It could span from hundreds of years to thousands. Would it be long enough? In this undetermined time frame, what kind of people would come out? Are they from the Song, Yuan, Ming, or Qing dynasty? What about modern youth? They would be on set with these “period people.” The set is such an artificial environment that there must be a key to breaking down its essence and mystery. Maybe the key was a suspension wire for Geng Le (the mainland’s famous lead actor) and some of the foreign models. It wasn’t only for the sake of safety; it was something penetrating the line between reality and fiction. A lot of my friends argued that they were not convinced by the mixed time periods; they experienced difficulty entering the story in order to believe it. But why believe it? That is my point. I don’t feel like explaining it too much. Let the suspension wire explain it. It is totally inevitable to see the impossible and the fake coexist on set. This approach was carried into the production of The Fifth Night.
In college, I worked on a set as an assistant art director. We turned a Western chapel into an elementary school, a school that transitions from the pre-liberation to the post-liberation era. The set was entirely fake, but, mixed with the original old campus, it appeared very real. It took a couple of days to achieve each look: before the liberation, during the Cultural Revolution, and during the ’80s opening-up policy. One rainy day, during a break from working on the set, it suddenly turned sunny. The sunlight shined on the wall of the fake school. It looked so fake that it looked real! That incident stirred a lot of things inside of me and has inspired me since. Regarding creative aspects, sets explain the awkwardness of a narrative. There is no distinction between the real and the unreal. They are equal. A lot of things are so unspeakably evasive . . . but you can feel them.
LZ Do memories affect your creativity?
YF Each time I’ve decided to make a project, I have had a vague conception of the general direction I’d like to take. For example, during the shoot of Dawn Mist, Separation Faith, I knew I wanted eight or nine shots, but I was unsure about their cinematic feel. Maybe I was uncertain of how it would feel to escape from a city, as those young people do in the film. Instinctively, I have a tendency to go for perfection and beauty. That is why I wanted to create the feel of a stage at the plaza between the two buildings at the Shanghai Film Shooting Base before I figured out what I was doing on set. I have a lot of appreciation for Yin Xiaoming, my excellent production designer, who built a lighthouse-style structure with a spiral staircase. He was able to design a set based on my ideas, which weren’t clear until much later. I also had hoped to shoot night scenes in the woods so that it would look like a prop forest. Again, it was a matter of budget. I also wanted synchronic and fluid images, which could be moving cars, horses, pedestrians, lights, sound, or whatever. It was very vague. Images of young blacksmiths setting up the fire and pounding on the steel came much later. At that point, I only knew that there would be a few boys and girls walking around. But I had not yet decided how to shoot it.
Yang Fudong, Dawn Mist, Separation Faith, 2009, 35 mm, black-and-white film.
LZ It took you three days to complete the shooting?
YF The preparation of the shoot took about 20 days. Finalizing ideas and pre-production did take some time, but it went by really fast. We rehearsed for two days and started shooting on the second night of rehearsal. We shot for a whole night. The first two days were very tiring; we did not get much rest. Coordinating, preparing, and adjusting took a lot of energy since we had seven cameras, seven cinematographers, a DP, and additional crew members.
LZ Did you shoot the seven screens separately or all together? How many individual takes did you do for each shot?
YF They were shot simultaneously. About four takes for each shot. Once we did one take, it seemed impossible for us to stop. No matter if we were ready or not, we would play back the first take and check for problems. And there could be a lot of problems: the dolly track was in the shot, actors missed their cues, or the composition was not right. We stopped then, made adjustments, and did the second take around midnight.
LZ In the final cut, did you pick the best moments from those four takes and mix them together, or did you pick the best take?
YF I picked the best take.
LZ Which take was that?
YF The third one. Actors’ performances and the images seemed to breathe. It was relatively difficult to get something like that with very complicated mise-en-scène and coordination between the seven cameras shooting simultaneously. In my previous experience, usually the best take has been the first or second one. It is incredible how my judgment evolved from one take to the next: I would feel secure at take two, but I would hardly stop there. I’d do a new take. Then I’d start forcing things to happen. When I was doing SIBF, I did 20-something takes for a shot and ended up picking the third one for the final film—actors’ performances and energy would go downhill at a certain point, even though we assume it has ups and downs. It is very subtle. A good take is not achievable through the director’s pursuit only; it also depends on the actors’ contributions. They are humans and they express their emotions and feelings in acting. It would not work if the energy were flat. In some way, the performances became even more important than in traditional narrative films. For one scene, one of my actors was supposed to walk alone at night. I told him that walking was his “dialogue.” His lines were his body, his eyes’ expressions, hand movements, and breathing. He had to understand this in order to “say his lines” with grace and rhythm in front of cameras for ten minutes. You see, making a successful picture really depends on an actor’s understanding and talent.
LZ I was very moved when the girl in The Fifth Night walked out of the willow forest.
YF If there is an invisible script, every character has his or her own individual story. The girl on the fourth screen slowly walked down the spiral staircase and occasionally stopped to look down to the plaza. Then she resumes her walk and eventually sees two elderly people on a sofa. To me, this has a sense of narrative. Here, everyone is alone at night, thinking. It is as if everyone wanders around a gallery in solitude. Everyone sees one another. Yet they look at each other as if they were just staring at statues. The girl keeps walking toward a young blacksmith and an old man. She walks by the willow trees and looks out into the distance. She leaves a trace the way a brush leaves a stroke on a long-roll painting. A boy standing by a horse near the willows approaches two other young men in the plaza. They just met two girls who did not stop for them. Yes, everyone walks in his or her own orbit at night. There is no real communication; no words are exchanged at all. What links all this together? It is the sound of footsteps, hammering, horses’ hooves, and street traffic.
Yang Fudong, Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, part III, 2005, 35 mm, black-and-white film transferred to DVD. Total running time: 53 minutes.
LZ Your work usually unfolds from a freeze-frame, but this was not the case in The Fifth Night. You mentioned before that the freeze-frames had something to do with painting and photography.
YF Yes, I do feel that a painting or a photograph is like a frame from a movie, or a movie with only one frame. I used to be a painter. Making paintings is like directing a film in a personal style. I wanted to visualize a frozen second of my heart. Would the remnants of that second attract me more? I feel the need to dig deep and figure out what I really like. It is important for me to know what I should do with images and how I can move further.
LZ From my perspective, your shooting process is a filmmaking process, while your way of conceptualization and presentation challenges conventional film-watching experiences. SIBF and some of your older short films are definitely in the experimental-film category because of their length, narrative and nonnarrative content, and presentation. Yet your more recent works are film installations. The way they were shot is their only connection to film; it would be difficult to identify them as films in the traditional sense in light of their viewership and exhibition format.
YF I have been thinking about the idea of a film for a specific exhibition space and what form it would take. What makes me happiest is people’s acceptance and understanding of films with unlimited formal possibilities. My films are open to interpretation, like Cubist paintings. Some Cubist works share qualities with Futurist works. Then they are Futurist Cubist, right? Can we use similar terms when it comes to films?
LZ Maybe what is important is not whether your films should be called films or some other thing. Perhaps it is more critical to find guidelines and boundaries within your own work, or in relation to other people’s work, which I find that you seem to have great interest in. Otherwise you would not keep asking yourself, Are they films? Especially when it comes to the Library Film Plan, the term itself cannot be a flat one. It is not as simple as if we were to go to a library to pick up a book.
YF The unknown down the road interests me and gives me energy. What more can I do? I am curious about the answer. The Library Film Plan is a broad term. The underlying question I want to ask is whether people have spiritual life or not. That is something that constantly gets me going. Personally, I hope ideals and beliefs exist.
For instance, there are three spiritual states I was trying to articulate in Dawn Mist, Separation Faith—the belief in faith, the escape from faith, and the loss of faith. I also wanted this to relate to the danger of approaching a poisonous snake and the uncertainty that the morning mist brings. I wanted to know if such danger and uncertainty had anything to do with spiritual life.
LZ There is another hidden theme in several of your works, that of “returning to reality.” What is the reality you are facing, let alone the spiritual life you are talking about?
YF First of all, what is reality? What is reality to you? What’s surrounding you? What are your thoughts on reality? What’s your inquiry into reality? There is a lot that we can digest and reflect on. In terms of paintings, are those orchids in Chinese paintings real? What do you see besides orchids? From ancient through modern times, what metaphor do orchids embody? Sadness, loneliness, worries about the country and people? This makes things interesting. How can we make sense of reality? We might imply certain things, beat around the bush, or throw in thoughts from a completely different angle. All these approaches are valid and have a lot to do with our daily life.
—Li Zhenhua is a writer, curator, producer, and artist living in Beijing, Shanghai, and Zurich. He is a founder of Laboratory Art Beijing and Mustard Seed Garden Productions. He has participated in numerous new-media art symposiums and has curated exhibitions for galleries and museums worldwide, including the ZK M Karlsruhe, the Walker Art Center, and the Guangzhou Museum. A recent art project of his can be seen in the online exhibition Beam me up, organized by plug.in, a new media art institution based in Basel, Switzerland. Visit his website here. Photo by Marianne Burki.
Chinese, born 1971
Museums and other collections
About Yang Fudong
Yang Fudong is a pioneering Chinese filmmaker best known for his “Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest” (2003-7), a series of silent, multi-part, black-and-white films that follow a cast of attractive Chinese youths through several surrealistic scenes. Drawing influence from his training as a painter and photographer, as well as the work of Jim Jarmusch, Yang’s films are sequences of slow-moving, tableau-like dreamscapes, more evocative of moods and impressions than any clear narrative. As he says: “There is no result, no answer.”
Beyond Tomorrow: Yang Fudong
Beyond Tomorrow: Coming soon to a biennial near you, five up-and-coming artists attracting international attention.
As the son of an army officer, growing up in a military compound on the eastern edge of Beijing, Yang Fudong didn’t get much exposure to art. “I wanted to be a soccer star,” the soft-spoken 36-year-old explained recently, while chain-smoking Double Happiness cigarettes at a café on Shanghai’s gallery-lined Moganshan Road. “But one day when I was eight or nine the ball hit my eye, and I got badly hurt. While it healed I couldn’t do any physical activity, so I calmed down and started to draw.”
Yang is now one of China’s most sought-after artists. In the past five years his photographs and film installations have been the subject of solo exhibitions in nine different countries, including a show last year at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York. His most significant project to date, the five-part film Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, is prominently featured at this year’s Venice Biennale. Pensive and elliptical, it’s shot on 35mm in black and white and follows a group of melancholy young Chinese as they linger in various settings, from a mountaintop to the seaside to Shanghai, creating an effect that New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl has called “part scroll painting, part neo-Antonioni, and altogether entrancing.”
Many Western critics have interpreted Yang’s art as expressing the uncertainties of young people in a country where the past is quickly vanishing. The artist himself, however, resists such analysis. “It’s great that China is developing so fast—great for everyone. Why wouldn’t it be?” he says. “I think what’s important is to face life earnestly, and that has something to do with my films.”
Robert Storr, curator of the Biennale and dean of the Yale School of Art, thinks Yang’s films hark back to the French New Wave of the Sixties. “There’s a kind of poetic naturalism in what he does,” Storr says, “that one doesn’t often see in Western art these days.” Yang admits he was affected by auteurs like Truffaut, Godard and Fellini, his favorite, but not in the usual way. Even as a student at the elite China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, he rarely had access to European films. Instead, he says, “I read a lot about them in books, and had to imagine what the films would be like. Before I saw Fellini’s 8½, I had my own 8½ in my head.”
It was at Hangzhou, from which Yang graduated in 1995 with a degree in oil painting, that he first saw the possibilities of the new media. “All I knew before Hangzhou was realistic painting,” he recalls. “Then, in my first year there, a visiting German art critic gave a seminar on modern art, including a lot of photography and film and video art, and it opened my eyes.”
In 2000, after a few years working for a video-game company, Yang was able to focus on his art full-time, buoyed by the increasing international demand for contemporary Chinese works. In the new entrepreneurial China, even Yang’s father, who the artist says raised him with strict military discipline, approves. “He used to be against my being an artist,” Yang says. “He thought I wasn’t doing the proper thing with my life. But when my art started making money, he started to feel that it was a good thing.
He’s taken part in documenta and the Venice Biennale, he’s shot clips for Prada: Yang Fudong is considered to be one of the most internationally prominent Chinese artists working today. Even while they address contemporary social issues, his elegiac images seem to spring from dreams. Kito Nedo met with Yang Fudong in his studio in Shanghai.
Passersby float gracefully in the air; holding umbrellas for balance, they teeter on streetcar cables: when you do an Internet search for Yang Fudong, one of the first things you find is the ten-minute film he shot for Prada. In First Spring, created for the spring/summer collection of 2010, Yang uses perfectly arranged, cool images reminiscent of the black and white aesthetic of thrillers from the 1930s or 1940s or the films of the Nouvelle Vague. At the same time, Yang’s protagonists, dressed from head to toe in Prada, assume delicate dancers’ poses as they move around the cityscape of Shanghai. Yesterday and today become superimposed: two young western dandies, alienated and arrogant, stumble like somnambulists through streets, restaurants, and stores populated by eunuchs, court ladies, and post-communists. Contrasting with their uncertainty is a pair of Chinese lovers seemingly imbued with tragedy beneath their obviously elegant exterior. In the midst of expensive fabric, looks are exchanged between East and West in surreal slow motion. In evocatively lit spaces, old and new China seem interwoven, united in a palimpsest. A place so thoroughly different from the soulless luxury malls of the fast-paced Chinese metropolises, where one can always count on finding a Prada boutique.
For the production of First Spring, the artist, who was born in 1971 in Beijing, entered the realm of fashion and advertising and took the various motifs in his work to the extreme: the youth and beauty of his actors, a black and white aesthetic borrowed from film noir, the references to the various ancient Chinese traditions of calligraphy and ink painting, Zen philosophy and the grace of bodies engaged in martial arts. First Spring, however, also envisages another phenomenon: the symbiotic relationship between the luxury goods industry and the art establishment so blatant these days in China’s museums and magazines.
Something of the playful, enigmatic aura of his film works also surrounds the artist himself, who, after some hesitation, invited me on a May afternoon to his huge, grandly empty studio in Shanghai. “Art and fashion make up a big family, but their backgrounds are different”, explains Yang. He’s wearing a simple black T-shirt and a silver tank chain bracelet; he speaks quietly and concentratedly, with his long hair falling into his face. Now and again he lights a cigarette or pours some more green tea into two small bowls. To some critics, Yang is the Chinese video artist familiar even to those who know nothing about Chinese video art. But what does this actually say about his work? In any case, no one is as good at the retro-futurist game with a sublime pop idiom as he. That’s the secret of his success. Yet Yang does not seem in the least bit arrogant; he’s all understatement, a cross between confidence and introversion.
Although Yang works primarily with video and photography, his works often have that undefined quality and emptiness of the landscape paintings of old Chinese masters. Yang, however, admits that “tradition is not one of the things I think about from day to day. Sometimes it influences my work—sometimes, certain decisions depend on completely different things. Right now, for instance, I’d like to film a boat on the Suzhou River in Shanghai. Why? It’s simple—because the flowers are in bloom on the river banks.” That might sound pretty mystical at first, but this work stands far above the mere satisfaction of a western public’s exotic cliché. In fact, the success of Yang’s films and photographs is based on their roots on both sides of the divide: in a Western and an Eastern aesthetic, in the present as well as in the past.
Yang had his international breakthrough in 2000 with his three-part photo series The First Intellectual: the work portrays a young disheveled office employee in a suit standing on the median of a busy street. In all three images, he’s holding a brick in his hand—the gesture, however, remains ambiguous. Is he about to throw the brick? Did someone just throw it at him? Is he threatening someone, or is he himself being threatened? The man’s face is smeared with blood, the direction of the aggression and its motivation remain unclear. Who is this intellectual represented here as the first of his kind? The idea seems vague. Making art in China means “to hold onto one’s ideals”, says Yang. The ones who do can be called “intellectuals or artists.”
Critics soon regarded Yang to be an artist who investigates the lifestyles and problems of China’s new young middle class: “His characters are slaves to feelings of uncertainty and vagueness that they don’t know how to react to because they don’t know whether the problems stem from society or from themselves,” wrote the Italian sinologist Claudia Albertini. Yet Yang’s films and photographs are neither sociologically nor politically offensive. His characters are sketched in a way that remains far too undefined to be pinned down in that way. Yang’s work does not embody the harsh criticism of the Chinese political system to be found in the work of his colleague Ai Weiwei, who aggressively investigates the results of corruption in the construction industry or the manipulation of Internet forums on the part of the state security.
It soon emerged that Yang resists any direct interpretation of his work, for instance in the case of An Estranged Paradise, which premiered in 2002 at documenta 11 in Kassel, curated by Okwui Enwezor. With its spare dialogues and atmospheric images, the 76-minute video tells the story of a young couple in Hangzhou, a city of six million inhabitants that lies south of Shanghai; the couple is driven by a perplexing agitation. It is the story of a society that, since it was opened to the world by Deng Xiaoping in the late seventies, has undergone “three revolutions at the same time” (Konrad Seitz): industrialization, urbanization, and the transformation of a socialist planned economy into a free market economy. One of the film’s central questions seems to address the price individual human beings have to pay for these gigantic social upheavals. Their perception of the paradise dawning as the country enters a Chinese century is that of the disenfranchised.
Yang had already begun this work in 1997, when after finishing his art education in Hangzhou he returned to the capital Beijing for three years, where he had grown up as the son of an army officer. A lack of funds finally forced him to put the film project aside until the documenta invitation gave him the opportunity to finish An Estranged Paradise at last. “As a young artist, I didn’t place very much importance on the market at the time. The public’s expectations weren’t very important. The idea I had at the time was that when I want something, I’ll make it.” It came close to being the early end of an artistic career. After three years of unemployment, in search of money, Yang went to Shanghai in 1999 to work as a programmer for a French software firm.
What made him start working in film right after graduating from the academy in Hangzhou, where he was trained as a painter? “All paths lead to Rome,” Yang says. To him, images are the expression of passion. “Originally, the drive to express something led me to study oil painting. But I quickly realized that video and photography were better media for me.” The fact that Yang had an experimental relationship to the curriculum already while studying can be gleaned from the notorious action Living in Another Space from 1992: in his sophomore year, Yang remained silent for three months, communicating only through messages written on all sorts of surfaces. The experiment is said to have inspired very little enthusiasm among his professors at the time. Since last September, Yang has himself been teaching at the art academy in Hangzhou. He doesn’t care to pass judgment on the younger generation he teaches at the academy. Today’s students have completely different options and are confronted with entirely different questions than his generation was. As the head of the “Experimental Image Studio,” he mainly tries to train the students’ aesthetic consciousness. “Two methods are important to educate an aesthetic consciousness: you have to develop independent thinking and you have to have a positive attitude towards the work. That not only means hard work, but stamina, too.”
Yang himself is the best example for developing stamina. His most important work to date, the five-part film opus he has been completing since 2003, Seven Intellectuals in the Bamboo Forest, comes across like a Chinese interpretation of a Beckett piece. Yet the films and photo series of the same name from the Deutsche Bank Collection are based on an old legend: seven wise men retreat to lead an ideal life far from all worldly temptations. This time, however, the artist has transposed the story into today’s China. For the “Intellectuals”, Yang sent a group of young urbanites to climb the Huangshan, the holy “Yellow Mountain” in the Anhui Province, to the sea, and to work with farmers in agriculture. Thus, his elegiac images function as metaphors for inner and outer emigration, like the dreams of a society that no longer has any time to dream.
Yang himself calls his films “abstract cinema.” He’d like to conjure up thoughts and emotions lying dormant in his viewers’ minds and souls. Hollywood was also once called a dream factory—so what sets his work apart from commercial film? “In Hollywood, films are produced to keep the factory running. The director is just another worker in this factory. On the other hand, as an artist, he has to do what he believes in. There’s a huge difference in that.” Does this mean he would never show his films in a cinema? Yang laughs at this question. Is it because it implies an old-fashioned separation between art and film and the artist’s impotence in the face of commerce? Or, perhaps, because it insists on the (typically western) dissolution of contradictions, for instance between clever critique and opportunism? Who knows? Where else but in process-oriented China can the old dichotomies become mixed up again—and by whom, if not someone like Yang? The options are there, and the artist keeps them open.
Yang Fudong’s films are best characterized by their understated elegance and the range of narrative strategies they employ. “No Snow on the Broken Bridge” at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) was an austere, thoughtful look at a pair of works by the celebrated 40-year-old Chinese artist. The exhibition, striking in its attentiveness to design and the particular needs of the works displayed, paired No Snow on the Broken Bridge (2006), a series of eight screens placed in a semicircle in the foundation’s main gallery, with the single-channel Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest (2003–07) in its theater annex.
Drawing on traditional Chinese literature, philosophy and art, Yang rejects linear storytelling by creating a collage of imagery that leads in many directions at once. Visual threads feed in and out of themselves or between multiple screens, generating a reverie in which time slows, and small details, such as a leaf trailing across water, become significant as the camera pans across distant horizons. Yang’s contemplative and extravagantly layered style reveals his original training in painting, which he pursued before taking on film in the late 1990s. In his fusion of tradition and modernity, one might also read something of the tussle with globalization in China today.
No Snow on the Broken Bridge takes its title from a popular touristic view on Hangzhou’s West Lake commonly referred to as “Lingering Snow on the Broken Bridge.” For Yang, the city has nostalgic significance as the place where he spent his formative years as a student at the Zheijang Academy of Art (now known as the China Academy of Art) between 1992 and 1995. He notes in the exhibition catalog that Hangzhou is renowned for its breathtaking mountain scenery, and its reputation bears out in the finished work. Filmed in black-and-white 35 mm, No Snow comprises loosely interconnected scenes and narrative fragments. Interpretation is left open to the viewer.
During the 11-minute film, eight young men and women take a meandering walk, admiring the surrounding scenery. Nothing definitive occurs. Without narrative resolution, one might become frustrated, but it is this very sense of expectation and longing that sustains the film. “It is what is going on in their hearts and minds that is important,” Yang explains. With the thawing of the snow, spring’s arrival becomes a metaphor for the budding hopes and ideals of the young protagonists. There is an elegiac nostalgia to the film—17th-century Chinese gowns, worn by the cast members, are interchanged with suits, with both sexes made up to resemble 1920s dandies—yet the film is firmly rooted in the present. No Snow draws parallels between Yang’s characters and modern Chinese youth; both groups drift between past and present, seeking relevance in a rapidly evolving China.
Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest takes its title from “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove,” a folk narrative in which a group of third-century CE Taoist scholars, artists and musicians would gather at a bamboo grove and enjoy each other’s works, escaping everyday life. Created in five parts over five years, Seven Intellectuals was presented at SCAF on a single screen, with one part shown each week through the exhibition’s run. The film follows seven characters disillusioned by urban life as they set out to change their identities and move to a rural village, and then to an isolated island. In the final chapter, the intellectuals return to the city, resigned that it is where they belong, but also hopeful about overcoming their disillusionment.
Yang describes the completion of Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest as a turning point, and his subsequent works have grittier frames of reference. In 2007, Yang shot East of Que Village, a menacing film about starving wild dogs living in desolate areas of northern China—focusing on a grim present rather than an idyllic past. “I can no longer make films with that utopian feeling,” Yang explains. “How to give thickness to the work is what I will be giving thought to in the future.” In some ways, Yang’s artistic trajectory mirrors that of his protagonists—maturity brings with it complexity and greater awareness about life. To maintain one’s youthful courage in a new social realm is the challenge that lies ahead. This exhibition faithfully teed up that future for him.
essay by Davide Quadrio and Noah Cowan
Yang Fudong, New Women, 2013 (production stills)
It seems easier for Yang Fudong to speak about what he is not rather than determine the elements that define him and his work. Critics and scholars, however, continue to insist on identifying potential influences and historical motivations within his work, often spanning through the history of visual culture in China. The fervor he inspires becomes especially fraught when we try to speak of him simultaneously as a filmmaker and a visual artist, participating in various schools of aesthetic creation, perpetuating and enlivening various traditions in both roles. Yang Fudong himself has strongly suggested in recent interviews that a great deal of current scholarship around him may well be ill-founded, if not misleading. This problem has many sources, not least of which involves exhausting taxonomic issues between film and visual art, born from a crucial half century developing separate critical and analytical tools, a situation still hobbling European and American thinking about the relationship between the art forms. Artists like Yang Fudong, by their example, continue to shatter these barriers but scholars have, sadly, yet to catch up.
Confusion around Yang Fudong’s work also springs from the unusual nature of his practice. He truly does occupy a world “between,” and not just between the traditions of cinema and visual art. Even within contemporary art he sits uneasily between the sculptural practice of an older video art tradition and the attention to visual detail associated with many current media art makers, alternating straightforward single-channel installation with the invention of complex sculptural environments where the moving image functions within a larger structure. Consider I Love My Motherland (wo aiwo de zhu guo) (1999), an early work exhibited as part of “Art For Sale,” the 1999 show that launched a renaissance in Shanghai’s contemporary art world. The multi-channel installation features five television sets and a small booklet. The spatial relationship between them appears casual at first but the elements, upon further reflection, take on richer meaning only within their spatial environment. A year later, he presented Tonight Moon (Jin Wan De Yue Liang) (2000), a big screen with small monitors embedded and surrounded by reverberating televisions, creating a powerful audio-visual experience, but within a sculptural context. Another more recent example is General’s Smile (2009), a key work from his first solo exhibition in China. He fuses a new multiple-channel installation with older works to create a composite historical narrative that hangs together with spatial logic. The negation of space is also a tool for Yang Fudong, as in his most recent installation, New Women (2013), which demands a museum-style approach, with screens flush to the wall, erasing the sculptural tri-dimensionality to (mis)direct us towards the painterly.
This unusual practice created tension between the artist and the Chinese art world. His early work lived in the underground with many others until the 2000 Shanghai Biennale, the first time video art was presented in a Chinese public institution. The work was marginalized into an offsite exhibition space (“Useful Life” was presented at a temporary space on Dongdaming Road), alongside Xu Zhen and Yang Zhenzhong. Soon after he became an international art star, but despite winning the top prize for Flutter, Flutter… Jasmine, Jasmine (tianshang tianshang, moli moli) (2002) at the 2002 Shanghai Biennale (where his work was highly popular with throngs of young audiences), Yang Fudong did not receive a solo show until 2009, at the private Zendai Museum of Modern Art, Shanghai. The entirety of his photographic works were only brought together in 2012 by Shanghai’s OCT Con-temporary Art Terminal (OCAT), also a private institution. Why was his work so resisted in China? We contend that Yang Fudong is that rare animal — a self-conscious hybridizer of form who is not interested in contemporary obsessions with collage, pastiche, appropriation and conceptualist pranksterism, hallmarks of much celebrated contemporary art associated with China. Film — its history and cultural specificity — is not a distanciated object of contemplation or satire for him, but rather represents a series of instruments in his toolbox, neatly alternating and blending with similar devices from the visual arts. This forces him into a subtler interplay between the political and the abstract compared to many of his peers.
Yang Fudong, East of Que Village, 2000
Yang Fudong began his career making highly political work, such as the above-mentioned video installation I Love My Motherland and the photo series The First Intellectual (2000). Even some of the more rarely seen works such as City Light (cheng shi zhi guang) (2000) or Robber South (Dao Nan) (2001), and the sublime 35mm piece Backyard—Hey! Sun is rising (hou fang—hei, tianliang le) (2001) carry a political charge. However, his political approach does not relate especially well to the more radical activist stance assumed by artists like Ai Weiwei. The politics present in these early works is an echo, a distant discomfort submerged into a narrative of poetic images. Back then, Yang Fudong was working in a very primitive context, with tiny budgets and myriad technical problems related to 35mm film. And yet there is a clear sense that he managed to create a genuine break with the still-predominant political pop and cynical realism styles of the 1990s.
These works reveal not only an uneasiness related to contemporary Chinese society, but also his role as an artist and intellectual within it. Politics would gradually recede into a gentle undercurrent within his production in the years to come, freeing him to adopt a more rarified approach to the haunting questions of contemporary life. In this gradual drift, he resembles artists of the past, the scholar-painters retreating to the mountains during the Ming Dynasty or a more contemporary artist, such as the early 20th-century painter Pan Tianshou, who situated himself within the world — we are not discussing hermits here — while standing apart from it. As Yang Fudong’s work progressively moves away from the immediacy of volatile early Chinese video art, he finds solace in the world of pure aesthetics and a passionate attraction to beauty. His work re-sonates with pre-1949 Shanghai, namely the cinematic and photographic tropes of a city and society “in between” — colonial and colonized, modern and feudal, progressive and nostalgic. This brings Yang Fudong into dialogue with the concept of haipai, a term associated with the decadent aura of Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s, a city of transgression: Chinese yet international, a place of contradictions. It was a place where art, culture and political liberties commingled with corruption, brutality and decadence. The exhilarating combination of the seamy with the sublime made the city a magnet not only for entrepreneurs but also lost souls and refugees from around the world. Pushing the limits of tolerance and freedom, Shanghai defined a certain kind of a social, political and creative culture of the 20th century. Its creative energy, sexual charge and political ferment were a crucible of change for a society tentatively emerging from the stagnation and humiliations of the imperial era. The haipai style is typically set against the more traditional, Beijing-centred and inward-looking jingpai. Yang Fudong sits uneasily between both; he continuously distances himself from Shanghai, claiming that he always feels like a Beijing-born foreigner in the city, while nonetheless embodying its most treasured historical tropes. Talking about haipai is to state a historical connection with the past spirit of the city. But, even when we speak of Yang Fudong as a haipai artist, we acknowledge how difficult it is to trace his artistic lineage and the motivations for his practice. At this stage of his development as an artist, he has in effect built an island of silence around his work, far away from the noise of contemporary Chinese life, and only tentative and occasional in its more obvious political connections to today.
But where did this impulse originate? There are some very important clues in the most unusual and striking work of his career, an actual film conceived to be screened in a movie theater, the only one in his canon with that provenance. Estranged Paradise, produced between 1997 and 2002, sees Yang Fudong challenged by longer-form narrative storytelling, looking back at the history of representation in Chinese art for visual tools to evoke an enigmatic yet critical representation of China’s rapid modernization and the internationalizing currents that came in its wake. These tools, deployed often tentatively here, will form the core of his more famous, bold installation works that follow. Estranged Paradise premiered at Documenta 11 in 2002. It features many of Yang Fudong’s signature motifs — crisp black-and-white 35 mm cinematography, storylines that blur contemporary visual tropes with more traditional aesthetics, as well as homages to and revisions of genre cinema, referencing the early work of his influences Jean-Luc Godard and Jim Jarmusch. The film also reflects his early studies as a painter, and functions to bring the principles of painting into the cinematic form through a long prologue concerning subjectivity in Chinese landscape painting. After that moment of rich misdirection, the narrative begins, set in the city of Hangzhou where Yang studied at the China Academy of Art. Estranged Paradise takes as its focal point a restless young man, Zhu Zi, following him as he aimlessly wanders through the city. Through a series of distinct vignettes, Yang depicts Zhu Zi’s inability to find comfort in friends, lovers or his environment as a reflection of the existential difficulty of China’s “nameless generation,” cast adrift during the rapid changes at the turn of the millennium.
Yang Fudong, Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest Part 2, 2003 (production still)
Although made independently of them, Estranged Paradise shares many clear and precise congruencies with the early films of the so-called Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers. In particular it shares an enormous affinity with Wang Xiaoshuai’s The Days (1993), which is about an intellectual couple deciding if they should stay together, and He Jianjun’s Red Beads (1994), which chronicles a young man’s psychotic breakdown. These films are both considered seminal works in contemporary Chinese cinema. Their status comes in large part from what came before them — the increasingly opulent, largely rural-based and highly abstracted films of Fifth Generation masters such as Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang. The international success these filmmakers enjoyed allowed them to exploit larger and larger budgets, despite their vigorous critiques of Party behavior during the Cultural Revolution. However, their historical and geographical focus meant that they ignored the new realities of China’s rapidly evolving urban environments. Party studio heads did not encourage films and television shows on the subject either, aware of the sensitivities around mass migration and the end of guaranteed employment, although a few films were produced that portrayed the cities, most notably Xie Fei’s prescient Black Snow (1990). After the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989, all portraits involving the life of cities came to an end and the result was the creation of a vibrant underground scene still present today. The Days and Red Beads, like Estranged Paradise, were made on shoestring budgets and relied on the skills and cooperation of friends. They are shocking works for a student of Chinese cinema: they don’t draw on established precedents from Chinese film genres and instead borrowed far more heavily from the black-and-white European cinemas of Alain Resnais and Michelangelo Antonioni to create an overwhelming sense of malaise and ennui — truly the first time China can be said to have had a haipai cinema since the 1930s. Their lo-fi, grainy aesthetics and casual approach to synched sound were also something new; Chinese cinema before that was extremely precise, even when resources were scarce. But more importantly, and most saliently, their politics differ radically. These films jettison the metaphor of an individual standing in for all of society, instead identifying characters in uniquely imprisoned circumstances that force them to retreat from engagement with the world and focus on their own less-than-satisfying inner lives. When collective politics enter the equation, they do so unheralded, through the inaction of characters and the subtraction of meaningful interactions in their lives, their languor a murmured contemplation of an imagined utopian moment hazily located in the past. They take at their core the duty, or lack thereof, an intellectual must assume in a society found wanting, a society that pushes him away. In Estranged Paradise, we see Yang Fudong picking up on these same themes, but through the lens of a visual artist, a painter enthralled with cinema but prevented from making films due to the economic and political circumstances of his age. By the time he made Estranged Paradise, Chinese underground filmmaking had moved on from the stripped-down thematics of the early 1990s to re-embrace traditional genres (He Jianjun’s Postman, 1995) and social activism (Jia Zhangke’s Xiao Wu, 1997), but through a similar low-key, gritty lens. Yang Fudong brings much to this conversation; by announcing a need for structure in their artistic enterprises in the prologue that begins Estranged Paradise, he challenges his contemporaries in Chinese filmmaking to strongly reassert an aesthetics of beauty into their practice while also calling for the reintroduction of Chinese cinema history through his casual referencing of pre-1949 masterpieces Spring In A Small Town (1948) and Street Angel (1948) in the scenes that follow. The films that follow his intervention, though it is less than clear that any of them would have seen it, indeed broaden their aesthetic scope to feel the influence of Chinese cinema, from Wong Kar-wai’s Hong Kong baroque styleand Lou Ye’s Suzhou River (2000) to post-1949 “17 years” Mainland cinema like Jia Zhangke’s Platform (2000).
For Yang Fudong’s own personal practice, the film appears to reorient him in a new direction, amplifying the themes proposed in Estranged Paradise to create his signature large-scale installations like No Snow On Broken Bridge (2006)and Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest (2003–2007). He now seamlessly marries artistic tropes of the past to the present, but increasingly works from the position of the distant scholar with a mission to discover new and innovative ways to connect to forgotten Shanghai, and its cinema, in order to make sense of today. His new work, New Women, presented at and commissioned by TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, suggests an end to this process and perhaps a new direction. This multi-channel silent movie is an ode to the erotica of the haipai moment, but also connects it to a greater history of visual art from ancient Greek sculpture to 19th-century Classicism and up to the modernist flourish, captured in its essence by Polish deco painter Tamara De Lempicka and her circle. The pastiche is disturbing and seems to confound the artist’s careful interplay between past and present. But in fact it opens it up, freeing the artist again from the shackles of his own practice to consider a greater range of historical experience. This poem through images in a sense forms a new, broader tableau, leaving haipai behind for something both more ethereal and worldly.
The October Painting 1 and 2, Los Angeles, California by Vincent Johnson
The October Paintings – numbers 3 and 4 – The October Paintings (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson) – the paintings are at the underpainting stage. They will be allowed to dry in my studio and then a layer of white glaze will be added. That will dry. Then I will work on each work, layer by layer, allowing each layer to dry, or be worked or added to as I desire. Our car Roxy is in the background, her back arched as she defies a mushroom to move.
The October Paintings (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson) – paintings 3 and 4. Taking advantage of the fabulous weather in LA.
The October Paintings – paintings 1 and 2 (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson) – with our cat Roxy playing in the back yard.
October Paintings 5 and 6, underpainting – layer one – October 31, 2013. Van Nuys, CA
The October Paintings, 2013, paintings one and two, under painting layers, Los Angeles, California, by Vincent Johnson
The October Paintings – paintings one and two (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson)
The October Paintings are comprised of nine 4×4 foot oil on canvas paintings. These are the largest canvases I’ve worked on since my return to painting after two decades of working with photography. I was trained as a representational painter at Pratt Institute and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. My graduate degree is in critical theory and painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The works are a continuation of my exploration of the history of art materials, combined with using the layering techniques of representation to create singular new abstractions. This is my first time working on several large-scale canvases at once. What I’ve noticed over the years is that every significant work I’ve made eventually finds its way into the world, often through unanticipated opportunity. The works are visceral, visually rich, emotively engaging. They follow the six large-scale paintings in the COSMOS SUITE that is also ongoing and was started in 2012, and the NINE GRAYSCALE PAINTINGS in LOS ANGELES that I completed in 2011. In my work I have always sought to reach for and produce imagery that lends itself to a serious consideration of the ideas that come to the mind when approaching the image. For me these works seek to substantiate themselves in the world, to be both evocative and provocative, beautiful and remarkable in both concept and realization. As these works are fully developed I will continue to record the journey am taken on with them, until they are complete.
OCTOBER PAINTING – Scumble glazing, second phase of the paintings.
October Paintings – scumble glazed and drying in studio.
During the scumble glazing layer of the painting, where I knock down the underpainting colors so that the next layers can deliver a fabulous punch, I thought about the magnificient, enormous paintings I saw this summer at the Menil Collection in Houston, by Cy Twombly and Mark Rothko. The high seriousness of Rothko’s chapel paintings was amazing. Yet on that day it would be my discovery of the excellence of Cy Twombly as a painter of the primordial and playful sublime that captivated my attention in his purpose built stand alone large gallery space that showcased his work far beyond the circular swirls I know but care nothing for at all. It seems that when Twombly switched to specific subject matter – whether it be abstract landscape paintings, where he had simply marvelous deep rich green works, or his overall giant abstractions, filled with playful and powerful singular and exciting moments, both satisfied in wonderful ways. I was fortunate to make two trips to Houston this summer. The Late Byzantine to Today was a marvel to behold; I also had no idea that the Menil is a world class repository of Surrealist art. I was also privileged to see the James Turrell retrospective at the MFA Houston, which itself will be expanding soon with a major new building devoted to modern and contemporary art. The Menil Collection itself will be adding seven new individual artist showcase galleries, which combined with their traveling shows will make Houston as important a center for seeing art as anywhere in the US outside of New York. I am looking at the nine 4×4 foot October paintings in my studio. Its the largest body of work I have ever produced as a painter. I can see so many possibilities in this new direction. It gives me reason to continue to push to get my work into the world, despite all of the difficulties I have experienced. Painting makes me see beyond my own being.
Los Angeles, CA
Vincent Johnson: CV
Vincent Johnson received his MFA in Fine Art Painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California 1997 and his BFA in Painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1986. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was selected for the Baum: An Emerging American Photographer’s Award in 2004 and for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 for the Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. In 2010 he was named a United States Artists project artist. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Art in America and Art Slant, and in over fifty differen publications in total. His photographic works were shown in the inaugural Pulse Fair Los Angeles. He has shown recently at Soho House (curated by ForYourArt, Los Angeles) and at Palihouse (curated by Los Angeles Nomadic Division), West Hollywood, and most recently in Photography 2013 at Another Year in LA gallery, West Hollywood. Johnson’s work has appeared in numerous venues, including The Studio Museum in Harlem (Freestyle (2001, The Philosophy of Time Travel, 2007, and The Bearden Project, 2011-2012), PS1 Museum, SK Stiftung, Cologne; Santa Monica Museum of Art, LAXART, Las Cienegas Projects; Boston University Art Museum; Kellogg Museum, Cal Poly Pomona; Adamski gallery of Contemporary Art, Aachen; Lemonsky Projects, Miami. His work has been published in over a dozen exhibition catalogs. He is currently working on a series of self published photography books that will focus on the U.S. cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Cleveland, Ohio, Miami, Florida and New Orleans. Johnson is also creating abstract paintings for his Cosmos Suite, that explores the practice of painting with the knowledge of historical painting practices. He is using the techniques of representation to create remarkable works of abstract art. At Beacon Arts Center, Los Angeles, he recently exhibited an entire suite of grayscale paintings. In the Spring of 2013, he exhibited a series of edgy photographic works at Another Year in LA gallery, West Hollywood, California. His work will be exhibited in the inaugural Open Project exhibition at the Palace of the Inquisition, Evora, Portugal, opening July 15, 2013.
Vincent Johnson lives and works in Los Angeles, California.
Here are three new paintings are added to my Cosmos Suite of paintings 2.24.2013. These are the 7th, 8th and 9th paintings created in the Cosmos Suite. They are also the 4th, 5th and 6th large scale paintings in this body of work.
These Cosmos Suite paintings are created using various experiments in media and paint application. Johnson has done substantial research into the area of the history of painting materials and there use, and employs this knowledge in the production of his work.
There are now a total of nine paintings in the Cosmos Suite. Six of the nine paintings are thirty by forty inches in size. Three of the paintings – the originals in the suite, are twenty by twenty four inches in size. Each painting takes about a month to create as there is a three week drying time between the first and second layers of the painting. As the suite grows there will be additional sizes including larger works.
Cosmos Suite: A Meeting Between Two Figures in Space
30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles (2013)
Poured Liquin in center of painting, added stripes of pure paint color to canvas, mixed with paint rags, dabbed till thick paint areas are leveled out.
Large areas of vertical yellow in painting. Layered canvas in thick paint in certain areas. Reminds me of seeing Gerhard Richter’s painting retrospective in London in the fall of 2011.
Cosmos Suite: State and Grace
30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles
Used sponges on face of painting. Layered canvas in thick paint.
Poured Liquin in center of painting, added stripes of pure paint color to canvas, mixed with paint rags, dabbed till thick paint areas are leveled out.
Reminds me of Florida’s mysterious beauty
Shape is of Florida in part
Cosmos Suite: State and Grace – final – complete 2.25.2013
30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles (2013)
Cosmos Suite: State and Grace – final – complete 2.25.2013
30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles (2013)
Cosmos Suite: Astral Melodies
30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles (2013)
used sponges on side and surface of the painting. used large brushwork. Layered canvas in paint.
Poured Liquin in between stripes of pure paint color to canvas, mixed with paint rags, dabbed till thick paint areas are leveled out. Started out with thick brush in corner to mix, abandoned this quickly.
Sensing jazz standards here – floating fields of opulent pure romantic color
Vincent Johnson received his MFA in Fine Art Painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California 1997 and his BFA in Painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was selected for the Baum: An Emerging American Photographer’s Award in 2004 and for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 for the Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. In 2010 he was named a United States Artists project artist. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Art in America, Art Slant and many other publications. His photographic works were most recently shown in the inaugural Pulse Fair Los Angeles. His most recent paintings were shown at the Beacon Arts Center in Los Angeles. His 2010 photo project – California Toilet, Filthy Light Switch, is in exhibition at Another Year in LA gallery in West Hollywood through early March 2013. His work has appeared in several venues, including The Studio Museum in Harlem (Freestyle (2001, The Philosophy of Time Travel, 2007, and The Bearden Project, 2011-2012), PS1 Museum, Queens, NY, SK Stiftung, Cologne, Germany, Santa Monica Museum of Art, LAXART, Las Cienegas Projects, Boston University Art Museum, Kellogg Museum, Cal Poly Pomona.
Below are some of the other paintings I have completed since returning to painting in the summer of 2011.
Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles
New Abstract Paintings: The Cosmos suite (2012)
Golden Dream (2012), part of the Cosmos Suite of paintings
California Toilet, Filthy Light Switch (2010) by Vincent Johnson. Archival Epson print (Private Collection, Miami, Florida). I provided this image as I realized its clear similarity to Golden Dream, which I completed a week ago in my studio in Los Angeles.
Two at Night (2012) from the Cosmos suite of paintings, Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches
Cosmos. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson
Cosmos Red Yellow Green. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson
Green God. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson
This new painting series is part of my ongoing exploration of painting materials and techniques from the history of painting. The works combine knowledge of painting practices of both abstract and representation paintings. The works concern themselves purely with the visual power that paintings can do through the manipulation of paint. Some of the underpaintings are allowed to dry for months; some of those are built dark to light, others light to dark. None are made in a single setting. Most are worked and reworked using studio materials. Each new series takes a different approach to the painted surface from how the paint is applied, to varying the painting mediums. This suite concerns itself with the layering of paint by building up the surface and altering and reworking the wet paint with studio tools.
Two larger paintings will be completed and photographed on Sunday, July 15, 2012 and posted here.
Vincent Johnson, Grayscale painting: The Storm (2012). Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, created in studio in Los Angeles, California
Vincent Johnson, Grayscale painting, Snow White/White Snow (2012). Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, created in studio in Los Angeles
Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles
Vincent Johnson, Nine Grayscale Paintings, Beacon Arts Center, Los Angeles, (2001). Oil on canvas. Each panel is 20×24 inches.
photograph of silver paint on my hands in studio, Los Angeles, during the creation of Nine Grayscale paintings.
Vincent Johnson – in Los Angeles studio working on Nine Grayscale Paintings, 2011
Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi poses in front of one of his paintings, entitled Autoportait, on Oct. 17, 2013 at the Museum for Modern Art in Paris, ahead of the first restrospective of his work in France.
Ahead of his extraordinary solo exhibition in London, we put our hands together for expressionist Zeng Fanzhi. No longer just the superstar of New China, he’s now one of the most important artists in the world…
It is easy – at a quick glance, but too fast for a quick study – to look at the work of the recent generation of Chinese artists, and see generic paintings full of representations of Chinese citizens beleaguered by the state. I remember walking around the first Saatchi show of Chinese art in its new space in Chelsea in 2008, and thinking how similar many of the figurative images of people were. These artists all shared a childhood spent deep in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, and it showed.
Then, when I first saw the work of Zeng Fanzhi a short while later, I was mesmerised by the mad, gurning faces of the people in his pictures. Their eyes looked like the eyes of Asian Bratz dolls, like images from a comic-horror graphic novel. They looked as though they were in pain, as though there was no other way to feel. If you looked closer, Zeng’s characters all appeared to wear the same uniform, too, or at least versions of the same type of uniform. Then I found out why: most of the suits his male characters wore were based on a Tom Ford Gucci cut. Even his 2010 portrait of Francis Bacon sees the painter standing, facing forward, dressed in a blue Tom Ford suit. Look at the images from his famous “Mask” series – where the figures look anxious and fretful, scared of their own shadows – and you see men in beautifully tailored Tom Ford suits, for all the world looking as though they’re dressing for their own funeral.
When I asked Zeng about this, when I met him in his enormous, modernist studio on the outskirts of Beijing this summer (he is a neighbour of one of China’s other famous contemporary artists, Ai Weiwei), he nodded, thought a while, and then said, in the considered manner he has, “When I was 20, in 1984, everyone in China wore a Mao suit and nobody wore a [Western] suit, so that’s why at that time they were a very curious thing for me. At the end of the Eighties and at the beginning of the Nineties, everyone began to wear [them] and that’s why in my ‘Mask’ series, a lot of people wear suits. Also, at that time even the leader of China, for example, began to wear suits and ties, so that is basically a reflection of that.”
Zeng surrounds himself with beautiful things, and to walk into his studio is to immerse yourself in the good life. When you enter you’re crossing a Rubicon, walking from a world that is very quickly learning to adapt to intense consumerism, to one where the transaction has already been made. You can smell the luxe. A slight man, Zeng dresses soberly in designer polo shirts, black Armani slacks and the most expensive limited-edition Nike training shoes. He wears a Rolex Submariner with a green dial, smokes Cohibas (he has designed his own humidor) and drinks vintage Bordeaux (the empty bottles line up across the top of his wall-long fridge). He has Hermès soap in his lavatories, and plays Mozart and Bach whenever he has visitors. On his bookcases are little framed photographs of the artist from the likes of Robert De Niro (a huge fan of his work), the Hong Kong businessman and socialite Sir David Tang, basketball player Kobe Bryant, restaurateur Richard Caring and the chief executive of ICAP and former treasurer of the Conservative Party, Michael Spencer. Not for him the grabbed sandwich or cappuccino while he paints; every meal is prepared by his resident chef. In his self- portraits, of which there are many, Zeng stands proud, stoic, with characteristically oversized hands and head. In his paintings, as in real life, he has immaculate fingernails.
He is surrounded by the trappings of success – there is a framed cover of Chinese GQ which has him on the cover – and it is a success he wears lightly. The New China might be rapidly overtaking the Old West, but the surface smarts and the new money indicators of wealth are all here to see. He has what you could call a healthy obsession with sophistication.
“I am very curious about fashion, about style, especially in the Nineties, because at that time everything was new to us. Before the Nineties in China, there were virtually no fashion magazines here and the fashion magazines that we got were usually out of date, and some were more than a year old. At that time those magazines were very new and we were very curious about it all, because we didn’t have the opportunity to go abroad and see what things were like for ourselves. Now, gradually, we have started to have many more choices. You come to a point where there are so many choices that you don’t know how to make a choice.”
Speak to any contemporary art panjandrum and they’ll tell you that the art world has moved on from China, but no one appears to have told Zeng Fanzhi. Fêted by the rich and the powerful, right now Zeng is one of the most important artists in the world. In May 2008, “Mask Series 1996 No.6”, a large oil-on-canvas diptych of youths wearing absurd masks and Red Guard scarves, was auctioned for £6.2m, one of the highest prices ever paid for contemporary Chinese art.
Stylistically he is an expressionist (he studied the German expressionist painter Max Beckmann at art school, and fell in love with the way in which he worked), and unlike the didactic work of many of his artistic peers – Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang or Zhang Dali, say – Zeng’s work is introspective, reflecting psychological pain instead of projecting political statements. His early works were often brutal metaphors (as in his pessimistic “Hospital” series), but his “Mask” series, for instance, represents the existential isolation that many of China’s white-collar city dwellers felt during the Nineties, one of the most turbulent periods of social churn in the New China. His work in those days could easily be described by one word: trauma.
“I do not want to focus on the political elements of my artwork,” he says. “In my work, I would like to focus on diversity, not only political ideas. The ‘Hospital’ paintings were more political, as I was living in that kind of environment [he lived opposite a hospital, inspiring him to paint harsh, ugly representations of the way in which China was changing]. And at that time I was an angry young man, so that’s the way I looked at the world, that’s the way I expressed the world in my painting.”
He has hardly become emasculated, though, and his recent work is as dense and as haunting as ever. It is certainly more complex. In some respects, he is a chameleon of styles, chopping and changing to suit his mood – something that is obvious from the new works on show at the Gagosian Gallery in London next month. His current style is one that owes as much to symbolism as it does to expressionism, although it is very much the artist’s own. These paintings involve layers and layers of extraordinary washes and carefully woven lines, an intricate, fascinating process that Zeng has captured exhaustively on film. The work is dense, immersive, and is a world away from the cartoon-like images of his early pieces. They are huge – intense, beautiful, occasionally monstrous. There is violent tension in them, and what initially look like benevolent landscapes are soon shown to be anything but. They are gargantuan, noisy pictures, the kind that in the wrong hands could cause you to die of decibelic exposure.
However, there is another twist in these pictures, another layer of meaning as, having experienced the turbulence, what Zeng wants you to take away is something else again. These works are almost of a religious nature. “These paintings are different because my heart has changed, or at least my understanding of it,” he says. “In this series of paintings I’m trying to focus on a belief, not just a religious belief or the belief of beauty, but a belief in love, because I think China needs this right now.”
These newer pictures are some of the most labour-intensive I’ve ever seen. It might seem silly to say so, but you can see the enormous amount of work involved, you can see the whole process in front of you, begging to be admired. It’s almost as though he were building a forest right in front of you, from scratch, from the undergrowth to the trees, filtered through the eyes of Steven Spielberg.
“They are not real landscapes,” he said, when quizzed about them by art website ArtZineChina.com. “They are rather about an experience of miao wu [marvellous revelation]. Miao wu does not fall into the common categories of cognitive process. Neither has it anything to do with reason. Instead of making something obvious, miao wu brought about an unmarked world, which underlies the deep strata of life, both novel and familiar. In this respect, the miao wu type of revelation concerns a disclosure of what is already embedded in the artistic ego – the revealed world is there, but it is unfamiliar and amazing. Miao wu constitutes a restless journey of discovery.”
The inspiration for these works – and especially for the new “Praying Hands” painting – comes from Albrecht Dürer, the German painter who is regarded as one of the greatest artists of the Northern Renaissance, and whose work involved highly detailed preparatory drawing. Dürer came from a large family in Nuremberg, and had 17 siblings. He had an equally talented brother, although the family could only afford to send one of them to art school. Albrecht’s brother decided to stay at home, so the painter was forever in his brother’s debt. “Dürer’s brother made a sacrifice, going to work in the mines instead,” says Zeng. “He worked in them for so long that eventually his hands became almost handicapped [crippled with arthritis]” – making it impossible for him to follow in his brother’s footsteps.
This is a famous story, and one that resulted in a famous picture, Dürer’s best-known work, “Study Of The Hands Of An Apostle”, an homage to his brother that immediately became known as “The Praying Hands”. It is Zeng’s version of this painting that is the centrepiece of the London show, a beautiful, recalibrated interpretation of one of the most famous images from the Renaissance. Zeng’s is a lush affair, a vast expressionist jungle of colour and line, the result of months and months of painstaking brushwork, with the artist working up to 12 hours a day. It is one of the most extraordinary things he has ever made.
Zeng is as excited by the growth of the art scene in China as he ever was, although he is circumspect about the huge numbers of artists now plying their trade in the galleries in Beijing’s famous 798 art district, and in the major galleries in Hong Kong.
“I think China is more a centre of excellence than ever before,” he says, “and is much richer and much more diverse, not like in the past. This world used to be kind of simple; now there are a lot of contemporary artworks, although the quality is not always what it could be.”
Zeng is now a very rich and famous man, and keeping the world at bay becomes ever more problematic. He enjoys his spoils, but lives a relatively quiet life. He’s only done three interviews in the past year, and has become obsessive about guarding his work from the media. He knows how much his reputation is worth, and knows not to flood the market. He has reached the stage where he no longer has to explain his work – he reckons this happened about two years ago – and spends most of his time in his studio, going over his paintings with ever more intricate brush strokes.
“I hope to give people a view of my work while they are looking at it so I don’t have to explain to them what it means,” he says. “Death obviously plays a huge part in my work, because that is everyone’s abiding fear. Which is why expressionists used it so much. Death is truth, one of the few undeniable truths. It is one of the classic themes, and every artist feels differently about it, as every person does.”
Zeng Fanzhi enjoys his success, and uses that success to push himself. You can tell that he is as worried about complacency as he is about the effects of fame.
“In our country, I like to think we will still focus on the energy of creating. That is so important. Because here in China, when you have fame, people will try to destroy you. For example, if you look at Weibo [China’s Twitter], there will be some very horrible things on it. So fame and the larger environment is not always that helpful. You have to stay true to your heart, and try to ignore the outside world.”
Having said that, the outside world has informed all artists of Zeng’s generation, because without that world, he wouldn’t be an artist at all.
“Sometimes the feeling of repression can motivate my desire to create, that is to say, there is a feeling of rebelliousness and I can express these kinds of rebellions in my artwork in a much more positive way, conducive to my creation. Living in an environment like Europe where everyone is free, where is your motivation? My national identity is everything. In terms of inspiration and creativity. These days, my life here in Beijing is more important than ever.”
Zeng Fanzhi’s solo exhibition runs from 20 November 2012 – 26 January 2013 at the Gagosian Gallery, Britannia Street, London WC1. gagosian.com
read our profile on the artist and collector, from the November 2013 issue
By Aimee Lin
Fly, 2000, oil on canvas, 200 × 179 cm. Courtesy Fanzhi Studio, Beijing
Interior view of the artist’s studio in Beijing, Photography by Wang Tao
Hare, 2012, oil on canvas, 400 × 400 cm (in 2 panels). Courtesy Fanzhi Studio, Beijing
Zeng Fanzhi’s studio is situated in the northeastern suburbs of Beijing, in Caochangdi, where he has a small and quiet courtyard of his own. The studio is luxuriously spacious. Adorning one wall is a 4 × 4m oil painting, Praying Hands (2012), that was shown as part of the artist’s solo exhibition at the Britannia Street branch of Gagosian Gallery London in 2012.Another canvas, recently finished, has been crated up for shipment to Paris, where Zeng’s next solo show, at the Musée d’Art Moderne opened in mid-October. And while this is by no means his first solo museum show, it is his first midcareer retrospective and will present, in reverse chronological order as you walk through the exhibition, more than 40 of his paintings and sculptures from 1990 to the present day.
Zeng has always been a media favourite. Over a dozen awards and trophies are lined up under his studio window
Zeng enjoys considerable fame in China as a result of the prodigious numbers his work has managed to realise at auction. In Sotheby’s 2008 Hong Kong spring auction, a 1996 oil painting from his celebrated Mask series was sold for the astronomical price of $9.66 million. According to ArtPrice’s latest tally, of the ten highest-priced contemporary artworks sold at auction in Hong Kong between July 2012 and June 2013, three were by Zeng.
A few days before the writing of this article, Sotheby’s Hong Kong announced that the Belgian collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens had put Zeng’s The Last Supper (2001), the largest and best-known painting from the Mask series, up for auction. Most of Zeng’s highest-selling works have come from this series.
Zeng has always been a media favourite. Over a dozen awards and trophies are lined up under his studio window, while photos of his appearances at various commercial events frequently appear in a range of magazines. A year ago, however, Zeng grew tired of the excessive social appearances and media exposure, and has since made a successful effort to keep a lower profile.
Indeed it was only via social media postings that we found out that this May he flew in a cinema magnate’s private jet to Venice, where two large-scale – 2.5 × 10m – oil paintings from his 2010 Landscape series are on show in the central hall of François Pinault’s Punta della Dogana, a showcase for the Frenchman’s private collection of contemporary art.
It’s become widely known that in early 2012 Zeng rented the top floor of one of Beijing’s many highrises, and subsequently converted it into a 1,000sqm art space called Yuan Space. In old Chinese, the word yuan means the origin, the beginning and the source – a concept that one may project the idea of art onto. Several important shows have already been held there. The latest was a group show featuring young, local, experimental artists curated by Chinese contemporary art expert Karen Smith.
The summer slot featured painter Yu Youhan, who, despite having played an integral role in the development of contemporary Chinese art (from his early Expressionist painting in the 1970s and 1980s to his Pop art in the 1990s, as well as his significant abstract painting throughout his career), for political reasons has never had a large-scale retrospective.
At the beginning of 2013, Yuan Space exhibited more than 30 works from Zeng’s private collection. These included drawings on paper by masters such as Balthus, Caspar David Friedrich and Giorgio Morandi. This show, Dancing with Virtuoso, has now toured to the Nanjing University of the Arts.
Indeed, Zeng is a prolific collector, with an interest that spans multiple fields. In addition to paintings, drawings and photographs, he also collects furniture, picture frames (dating from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century) and objects that were popular with ancient Chinese literati for their ludic and relaxing qualities (writing instruments, rocks and ‘natural’ sculptures such as root formations).
While deeply infatuated with traditional Chinese culture, as an oil painter Zeng is profoundly influenced by Western art. Accordingly, he owns three oil paintings by Morandi and over 100 drawings by European artists from various periods. Zeng has a photograph of a small oil painting in his Samsung mobile. It’s a recent purchase – an 1880s painting by Paul Cézanne that was once owned by Paul Gauguin. After several changes in ownership, the little painting is now on its way to China.
The exhibition space and Zeng’s collection are a rehearsal for a larger dream: to build a museum (also to be called Yuan). The seeds of all this were sown over 20 years ago, when the artist, in the company of prominent collector Uli Sigg, visited the Beyeler Foundation in Switzerland.
There he saw, for the first time, art lovers entering an open and friendly space in which they could appreciate art at their own leisure. It was “extremely beautiful and very moving”, he tells me. Of course, during the 1990s, Zeng couldn’t, in his wildest dreams, have imagined that he might one day build a museum of his own.
Things are different now. I pick up a copy of Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s latest monograph from Zeng’s coffee table; a rendering of the Yuan Museum is on its front cover. It is to be built beside the Liangma River, next to the Embassy District of Beijing, with Ando’s signature plain concrete adorning the riverside facade. The museum differs from Ando’s earlier, more disciplined neomodernist works, however, in that the surface features a curve that is sober, calm, but extremely difficult to construct.
“I had planned to announce the museum project next year, but Ando couldn’t wait to publish his architectural design in his new book. Many people who’ve seen the book have come asking questions,” Zeng says. This single building, situated among high-end hotels in the middle of the city, is currently under construction but due to be structurally complete by 2014 and open a year later.
There is an elaborate scale model of it in Zeng’s studio that can be deconstructed layer by layer like a Lego castle. Zeng holds a red laser pen and excitedly explains the design and future plans for each section of the building.
‘I expect that over the next 20 years, half my income will be invested in this museum’
What’s more surprising to me is that the construction of this 8,400sqm building (with three floors above ground and three below) is being funded in full by Zeng. Ando’s designs are known for their technical complexity and the difficulty of their subsequent construction. Zeng, on the other hand, expects the absolute best in everything he does (when he needs anything, such as security, lighting, or museum-quality elevators, he typically requests quotes from the three top companies in the world).
As a result, and even as the construction progresses, it is no longer possible to estimate the total investment. “I want to invest on my own, I won’t seek sponsorships and additional investments from my friends until they see the building is up. That way I can be more convincing. On the other hand, I expect that over the next 20 years, half of my income will be invested into this museum.”
Finally, he has made mention of his friends. Arguably, in China Zeng is the artist with the largest group of wealthy friends. He consults for art collections of the superrich – both in mainland China and in Hong Kong – and frequently advises them to buy Western classics from auctions. He has influenced a number of the region’s wealthy who have no prior knowledge of art to begin their collections with classics from the canon of Western art-history that are valued well beyond the means of ordinary collectors.
Upon completion, the temperature- and humidity-regulated Yuan Museum would be the perfect place to exhibit the masterpieces he helped others to collect. Indeed, he has made detailed plans for the museum’s long-term operations. He wants it to be home to Chinese, Western and contemporary art (as well as a section dedicated to experimental art), and he wants to accomplish this without state sponsorship.
For any institution in China to hold an exhibition of classical Western oil paintings, the country’s current laws require an astronomical sum in customs bonds alone, which is why the vast majority of such exhibitions are organised by official cultural institutions backed by diplomatic assistance and state guarantees. For Zeng’s dream to come true, he and his friends must create a heretofore nonexistent art sponsorship tradition among the nouveau riche, where wealthy individuals provide sustainable support for expensive but nonprofit museum projects.
Strangely, my conversation with Zeng rarely broaches the subject of his own art. Zeng, like many other painters, is cautious when talking about his own work. When it comes to specific works, he prefers to talk about techniques. People have described different phases in his work with statements such as ‘mixing a contemporary history of China with the artist’s personal history’, ‘signs of Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, Balthus and Jackson Pollock may be found on his canvas’, or ‘a combination of Expressionism, abstractionism and traditional Chinese landscapes’.
A constant sense of loneliness and tragedy may be found throughout Zeng’s paintings and sculptures, perhaps reflecting a sliver of his innermost world. And no matter how hard he works to expand China’s collection of Western classics, Zeng prefers to think of his style as an extension of traditional Chinese paintings. People are whispering that he has created a series of paintings on paper, which, while unseen by the world, are a combination of Chinese literary painting traditions and his unique brand of abstractionist language.
Zeng has said in another interview that he ‘[likes to] wander outside of the physical world, to be mired in his own thoughts, while still facing this world with sincerity. When [he] was still a student, life was simple. There was no marketplace or galleries… it was a wonderful time.
To Zeng Fanzhi, it is still a wonderful time, maybe a better one, with the marketplace, the galleries and a midcareer retrospective in an art museum. Zeng, as a sensational individual case study, demonstrates how a Chinese artist, starting with paintings, conquered the modern art marketplace and galleries to become a worldwide influence, and further exerted his personal wealth and authority among the superrich to realise his dream of building a world-class museum.
Zeng proclaims that in the library of the future Yuan Museum, visitors, especially students, will be able to view original paintings, sketches and photographs by Western masters up close (as long as they make an appointment), because to his mind there simply is no replacement for seeing originals up close.
When he talks about the library, just as when he talks about his museum and collection, I can almost imagine the Zeng Fanzhi of his youthful years, when he started to study oil painting with a neighbour in his hometown Wuhan. That young man, full of energy and passion for art that borders on zealotry, is a distant memory. But the same spirit is still very much alive in the middle-aged man, as he sits quietly beside me.
It was 1998 and Zeng Fanzhi was struggling to find somewhere to display his paintings. The market for modern Chinese art barely existed. Thanks to help from a fledgling local dealership, Zeng was able to hang a piece in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Shanghai and was extremely pleased when the painting – “Mask Series No 6” (1996) – was sold to a visiting American tourist for $16,000.
Just 10 years later, the same piece was bought for more than $9.7m at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong, making Zeng the most expensive living Asian artist – and the American tourist who sold it a very happy man.
Today, Zeng is an icon in the art world and his career provides an analogy for the development of modern Chinese art – perhaps even Chinese society – from the utilitarian social realism of his childhood during the cultural revolution to the giddy heights of global art fairs and seven-figure price tags.
I arrive for our interview at his studio in a famous artists’ district on the outskirts of Beijing to find a serene oasis away from the frenetic pollution and noise of the Chinese capital. An inner courtyard of rock fountains and tall trees leads into an entrance hall dominated by an exquisite wooden Buddha that pre-dates the founding of the Tang dynasty in AD618.
The hall opens to the left into Zeng’s high-ceilinged, sunny studio, lined with enormous finished and half-finished canvases, casually strewn with millions of dollars worth of his creations. Puffing on a fine Cuban cigar, Zeng is busy poring over a small-scale model of his latest exhibition with a visitor – a retrospective of 40 of his paintings and sculptures from 1990 to 2012 that will open at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in October.
An assistant makes me a delicious espresso in an adjoining kitchen area and after a few minutes Zeng appears, apologising profusely for making me wait and for the lack of air conditioning in the studio, which he explains is necessary so his paint can dry slowly.
He is studiously polite and almost shy in his quiet, unassuming manner but his eyes look like they are made from granite and, as we sit down in the courtyard garden with a pot of expensive Chinese tea, I have the feeling he is used to people flattering him. “We are now in a period of great artistic flourishing in China,” he says. “In the 1990s there was almost nothing but there are countless artists now. Whether they are all good is not for me to say, only people in the future will be able to tell.”
This is a typically oblique and diplomatic comment from Zeng on the millions of counterfeiters, copycats and opportunists drawn into the Chinese art boom by the promise of great riches. Rather than waste time thinking about the state of the art world or even the state of the wider world, Zeng says he focuses almost entirely on his painting. He insists that every brushstroke must be made by him so he ignores weekends, spending 330 full days a year in his studio, with just one month’s break during the oppressive Beijing summer for travel with his family.
This dedication to art has been the defining feature of Zeng’s life since he was born to workers from a printing factory in 1964 in the gritty central Chinese city of Wuhan. “I was always a bad student; I refused to let people force me to study things I wasn’t interested in and I was only really interested in drawing and painting,” he says.
Wuhan was one of the epicentres of the cultural revolution, which began in 1966 and involved the persecution or death of millions of intellectuals, professionals and officials. Because his parents were designated as working class, Zeng’s family was relatively safe but they were not left unscathed by the convulsions ripping through society.
“At the time everyone wore the same clothes but my mother liked beautiful things and she sometimes wore a bit of colour – some pink flowers on her clothes,” he says. “For that she was persecuted for her ‘petit bourgeois sentimentalism’ – that experience affected my whole family deeply.”
Although Zeng’s mother was not subjected to the violent “struggle sessions” that others endured, the family was publicly humiliated by groups of militant Red Guards who pasted denunciations outside their house and at his mother’s factory in the form of “big character posters” – large handwritten banners of Chinese calligraphy that have been used since imperial times to protest or spread popular messages.
Not long after this, the young boy began to draw for pleasure and for a break from the monotony of formal Mao-era schooling. When he says he was a bad student, Zeng is not exaggerating or dabbling in false modesty. He did not finish high school, dropping out at 16 to work in a printing factory like his parents and taking formal painting lessons in his spare time.
When he discovered there was such a thing as art school he decided to apply but, because of his deficiency in subjects like maths and science, he failed the university entrance exams five years in a row before he was finally admitted to the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts in 1987 at the age of 23. “I was lucky that my parents did not pressure me or discourage me; they were very supportive and each year my exam marks got a little better until finally I got in,” he says.
Although all he wanted to do was stay home and paint, Zeng was assigned by the government to work at a fledgling advertising agency when he graduated in 1991. It would turn out to be the dawn of the advertising industry in post-revolution China. “When I started there the only advertising that could be displayed was political slogans but that soon changed,” Zeng says. “I managed to get a big ad contract for the agency and so then I didn’t have to go to the office for a year. I did some of my best work in that period.”
Much of his formal schooling was meant to produce social-realist works in the traditional Soviet style but he also developed an appreciation for German expressionists and, in his brief foray into advertising, he even read books by ad guru David Ogilvy on how to sell beer and shirts. He produced his first major works, including the haunting and grotesque “meat” and “hospital” series, in which his subjects already sported the oversized hands that would become a signature feature of his work.
Zeng was able to quit his job altogether and move to culturally rich Beijing at the start of 1993, after selling his first paintings to Johnson Chang, the renowned Hong Kong collector. Partly on the advice of the influential art critic Li Xianting, Chang paid $2,000 each for four large canvases, an enormous sum of money at that time in China.
Zeng says Chang still has the four pieces, which must be worth multiple millions of dollars today. “At that time those two [Chang and Li] were the most important people in the Chinese art world and they really gave me my start,” says Zeng. “It wasn’t just money, they also gave me confidence.”
In Beijing he found a community he says he could “eat with and play with” and that would later comprise some of the most famous artists in China. He also embarked on a relentless process of renewal and reinvention, adopting and then rejecting new styles at a furious pace. “We consider Fanzhi to be the greatest living artist in China, in part because his visual imagery has changed over and over again,” says Nick Simunovic, director of the Hong Kong branch of the Gagosian Gallery, which represents Zeng outside China. “He’s never satisfied with a single identity and in many respects he’s getting better and better; his art really maps the development of China.”
About a year after arriving in Beijing, Zeng began working on the “mask” series that would eventually make him a multimillion-dollar artist. These pieces used a different style and technique from earlier works and reflected his feeling that people in the capital were hiding their true identities from each other and themselves. Although his mask paintings have been his most financially successful ones, in 2004 his style changed radically again as he directed his efforts to the study of Chinese traditional landscapes and calligraphy.
He lists Romantic painters, German expressionists, Cézanne, Picasso, pop art and Chinese traditional painters as influences but says his own life and experiences are the most important in shaping his work. His latest works are dominated by large, intricately painted landscapes distorted by forests of thorny lines while others contain direct references to some of Zeng’s favourite German painters.
The Chinese art market has been through a few gut-wrenching cycles in the past decade but the prices of Zeng’s work have stayed remarkably stable, Simunovic says. That is partly because he is so well-known in art circles outside China and because the bulk of his works are sold to international collectors.
“The financial crisis [of 2008] was very good for the Chinese art market because it cleared out the speculators and left the real art lovers behind,” says Zeng. “But it had no real impact on me because the price I sell my work for stays about the same no matter what happens in the secondary market.”
In 2011, Zeng’s auction record was eclipsed by a 1988 work from Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang that sold for $10.1m in Hong Kong. But prices for modern Chinese art remain volatile and subject to waves of speculative buying, particularly from mainland China. In post-communist China, anyone who is wealthy is by definition new money, or baofahu (literally, “explosion of wealth people”), with all the materialism and conspicuous consumption that comes with sudden riches.
Zeng has clearly enjoyed the trappings of success – designer clothes, expensive watches – but like an increasing number of the country’s nouveau riche, he seems now to be searching for something more substantive. “When I started out I wanted to earn more and more money and spend it on expensive cars and airplanes but in the last couple of years I’ve really changed a lot,” he says. “I think if everyone is just doing everything for money then this society is finished.”
As he has become richer his life and his tastes have become simpler and these days, he says, his only real indulgences are Cuban cigars and costly Chinese tea. His biggest expense is the more than Rmb10m (£1.04m) he spends each year on running his own gallery, which is intended to support a new generation of young artists by allowing them to exhibit and build their own profiles.
The only point in our interview at which Zeng becomes cautious and uncomfortable is when I ask him about the role politics plays in Chinese art. The world-famous dissident artist Ai Weiwei lives just a couple of blocks away from Zeng’s studio, in a compound that is regularly besieged by goons from China’s ministry of state security. “It’s not that I don’t pay attention to politics, it’s just that I pay more attention to my art; I’m not a political artist,” Zeng says. “Ai Weiwei is my neighbour and I don’t resent or dislike him; he makes his choices and he has his reasons [for doing what he does].”
Zeng’s cigar is almost finished and our interview is drawing to a close but, before I go, I want to know what happened to the American tourist who made nearly $10m from investing in this unknown artist in 1998. “I don’t remember his name but he came to Beijing to see me after he sold the piece at auction [in 2008] and he was very happy because it got such a good price,” Zeng says. “I guess he wanted to see what the artist looked like. I was also happy that he made so much money.”
Musée d’Art Moderne Launches a Retrospective of Zeng Fanzhi’s Politically-Minded Oeuvre
Chinese political history meets Pop Art and surrealism in a major retrospective of Zeng Fanzhi’s work now on view at Paris’s Musée d’Art Moderne. Coming of age under the shadow of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, Zeng places his personal narrative against the backdrop of China’s fragile relationship with its growing artist community and the influx of Western ideologies. At the exhibition, 40 of Zeng’s paintings and sculptures are arranged in reverse chronological order, ending with the artist’s earliest works created while he was still living in his home city of Wuhan in 1990.
The specter of China’s political instability is everywhere in Zeng’s work—in Tian’An Men, Mao’s abstracted face almost completely obscures Tiananmen Square, the site of the 1989 student protests; in Mask Series No. 6, Chinese students, all sporting the ubiquitous red scarf, wear grotesque masks with absurdly large smiles. But Zeng also draws much of his imagery from the history of Chinese decorative arts, with his landscapes and portraits taking on a fantastical sensibility.
Through February 16, 2014, at Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris; mam.paris.fr
ZENG FANZHI,Self-portrait, 2011, oil on canvas, 150 × 100 cm. Photograph by Wei Leng Tay for ArtAsiaPacific.
ZENG FANZHI,A Man in Malancholy, 1990, oil on canvas, 110 × 90 cm. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.
Gagosian’s first exhibition by Zeng Fanzhi—incidentally the first Chinese artist to enter the blue-chip stables—provided a surprising overview of recent and early paintings, many from the artist’s collection, ranging from 1989 to several new works completed this year, shown at the gallery’s spacious, new Hong Kong branch.
Zeng, well-known for his series of “masked” figures from the 1990s, continues to set auction records. At Gagosian, the inclusion of earlier works, not for sale but simply exhibition, may have been to offer some background to the auction hype. At Sotheby’s “Contemporary Asian Art” auction on October 3, just a week after the artist’s solo show opened, five of the top ten lots were by Zeng, including Mask Series 1998 No.5, which sold for a reported USD 3.96 million. Previously bought by European collectors, the work of Zeng, alongside Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun and others, is now a firm favorite amongst a burgeoning group of Chinese speculative collectors, who lack diverse local investment options for their sizeable, rapidly-made fortunes and hence are putting money into art.
At the gallery entrance a mature Zeng greeted viewers in Self-portrait (2011), standing confidently in a blue tailored jacket and bright red pants, with characteristically oversized head and hands, his fingers striking a casually interlocked pose. The brushwork is confident, the somber grey-brown tones of the background contrasting the intense oily red—an effect repeated in other portraits where figures are often dressed in some article of eye-catching red. However, the depicted man standing before us, half life-size, seems distant, unable to project his inner world. The characteristic motifs—the mask-like face, smeared quality to the paint, atmospheric drips or washes, as well as heavy, oversized head and hands—signify it is “a Zeng Fanzhi”; but otherwise the academic and distant quality of the work feels like it could be painted by someone else, reminiscent of aristocratic portraits at the root of the genre in Europe. Here the artist becomes just another character in a largely European canon. Similar recent works were portraits of Pablo Picasso and Lucien Freud both from this year, as well as two earlier portraits of Francis Bacon, from 2010 and 2008. In the ostensibly anonymous, Portrait (2009), one also finds patron-collector Uli Sigg, a great supporter of Chinese contemporary artists, in a pale pink shirt.
The eye skimmed easily over such slick portraits, their rich whites, reds and greens, and their lavish frames creating a formal contrast to the raw brown canvas backgrounds, which Zeng has begun to leave untouched. This contrast demonstrated the almost decadent skill of an established artist, sure of his style and prestige at home and abroad.
Yet the highlights were elsewhere, in early works from the late 1980s and early 1990s. A Man in Melancholy (1990) is a classic portrait of angst, of a man slumped in a chair, holding his head in his hand, painted in a loose impressionistic style, which might be read as a portrait of many artists in the years immediately after the Tiananmen incident of 1989. In the large triptych No.1 Hospital Triptych (1991), different stages of medical diagnosis, surgery and recovery are depicted in strong lines on bleak backgrounds. In a small but beguiling canvas, Meat (1993), a naked man’s pink flesh blends into a piece of meat he is laying astride, suggesting some desperate, carnal emotion. This visceral quality is even stranger in the larger painting, Man and Meat (1993), showing a frenzied abattoir, with butchers handling meat while large fleshy tigers devour carcasses in the foreground.
These works appear less technically accomplished, with rough clunky lines and muddy colors, and less complex handling of space and symbolism, yet they nevertheless have an ambitious energy, urgency and intrigue. If there is more introspection in the “mask” series, as Zeng’s symbolism matured, it seems to have evaporated from the most recent portraits. Though he is no doubt one of the most significant Chinese contemporary painters, Zeng may be burdened by such success, now replicating and refining a signature style that eclipses his subject. Like a number of his compatriot artists who have been favored by the market, perhaps he faces the dilemma of how to meaningfully reflect or comment on the forces of rapid social and material change in China, while being symptomatic of them.
Elusive and something of an outsider in the Beijing art world, painter Zeng Fanzhi has shot to the head of the class.
On a drizzly spring day in Beijing, Zeng Fanzhi is serving espresso in his studio, looking every bit as serene as the Tang dynasty stone Buddha stationed cross-legged on a nearby pedestal. As raindrops tap the skylights 25 feet overhead, Italian opera fills the newly built 5,000-square-foot space designed by the artist himself. Beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows is a Suzhou-style garden with an array of monumental scholar’s rocks surrounding a goldfish pond.
Inside the studio several of Zeng’s latest paintings are propped against the wall, most depicting wild, almost menacing nighttime landscapes overlaid with dense thickets. “I think they are peaceful,” Zeng says somewhat cryptically through a translator, looking at scenes that seem anything but. A group of these works will be included in a show later this year at Acquavella Galleries in New York, the blue-chip dealership that recently signed Zeng to what is rumored to be a multimillion-dollar two-year contract.
The deal is the latest step in the 44-year-old artist’s ascent from newcomer in the Beijing art scene 15 years ago to his position as a leader in the Chinese market. In May, only days after our meeting, his painting Mask Series 96 No. 6 sold for $9.7 million at Christie’s Hong Kong, a record for any contemporary Chinese artist.
Handsome and somber, Zeng answers questions with carefully measured words. He’s still something of a loner in Beijing’s lively social network of artists, and he is reluctant to share personal information or give opinions on the changes in China over the last three decades. And he seems uninterested in discussing business, though he’s not entirely free of arrogance about his success.
“Sometimes these supercollectors come to my studio and say, ‘I own every bit of Chinese art except your work,’ but I will never sell to this kind of buyer,” says Zeng. Such collectors, he believes, lack the taste or connoisseurship to truly appreciate him as an artist. “Though I have deep regard for Chinese culture, as you can see from my garden, I never wanted to be merely a Chinese artist in my paintings.”
Zeng grew up in Wuhan, in the central province of Hubei, where his parents worked at a printing house. As a student at the nearby Hubei Academy of Fine Arts, Zeng found himself drawn toward Western masters such as Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning, Raoul Dufy, and Max Beckmann. It is this amalgam of influences that resulted in his expressionistic paintings, which were quite different from the Pop Art styles of many of his Chinese contemporaries in the early nineties.
In the beginning Zeng painted slabs of meat as if they were human characters and, later, people as if they were piles of meat—two series inspired by a butcher shop and a hospital near where he lived. One of his first major works, Hospital, a triptych depicting a group of the dead and suffering in an arrangement modeled on Michelangelo’s Pietà, was painted for his senior show at the academy in 1992. It caught the attention of Li Xianting, the country’s leading art critic of the period, who brought it to Johnson Chang, owner of the Hong Kong gallery Hanart TZ. Similar early works were featured in Chang’s 1993 exhibition “China’s New Art, Post-1989,” which essentially introduced this generation of Chinese artists to the outside world.
In 1993 Zeng left Wuhan for Beijing, which he’d visited several times to see exhibitions like the influential 1985 Robert Rauschenberg show at the National Art Museum. Once there, in a huge city full of strangers, he experienced profound loneliness and alienation, even as the country embarked on its tremendous economic advances of the post–Tiananmen Square period.
Instead of moving to the artists’ village near the Old Summer Palace in northwest Beijing—where Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun, and other now–art stars had formed a bohemian outpost—Zeng found a small courtyard-style residence in the embassy district, then a quiet part of town. There he began his famous “Mask” series, paintings in which the characters wear skintight white masks, their huge, bulging eyes staring out from behind.
In early paintings from the series, the figures are dressed in school garb, including the famous red kerchief, occasionally in groups coalescing as a team. Zeng had grown up at a time when every schoolchild aspired to receive the red kerchief, a sign of acceptance and achievement in the Little Red Guard. Years later Zeng still felt the sting of being denied this reward by a cruel teacher at his elementary school, leaving him as one of the only children without it.
In later Mask paintings the dress shifts to the latest fashions, reflecting the emergence of young yuppies in Beijing by the late nineties. Throughout the series the figures appear happy and relaxed, superficially, at least. But they seem distanced from each other, bound by social conventions that make it impossible for them to be genuine. These works were a personal statement of Zeng’s emotional state at the time. “I was lonely and a total stranger in this big city, which led to very introverted feelings,” he recalls. “These paintings were about being afraid to show myself, about hiding, so that I wouldn’t get hurt.”
For most of the nineties, Zeng worked without much recognition. A 1995 solo show at Hanart TZ in Hong Kong generated only modest sales at very low prices. A couple of years later Zeng began his long association with Lorenz Helbling of Shanghart, essentially the only contemporary art gallery in Shanghai then.
Around 2001 Zeng began to move away from the “Mask” series and started doing large-scale portraits. Sometimes he painted close-ups of faces composed of circular brushstrokes not unlike Chuck Close’s famous portraits. In others he painted Communist icons such as Marx, Engels, and Chairman Mao with stray lines and expressionist brushstrokes nearly eclipsing their visages. While many Chinese artists repeat themselves as their work gains in popularity, Zeng is a rarity, constantly experimenting and pushing his imagery in new directions.
“Zeng Fanzhi’s works often have to do with the society he lives in, the situation in China for his generation,” says Helbling, who showed the artist’s latest works this summer at Shanghart’s new Beijing gallery, right next door to Zeng’s studio in Caochangdi Village. “I think he follows this sensibility quite accurately yet with a lot of intuition.”
The artist’s recent works are his most imaginative and abstract yet. The scenes are desolate—glowing landscapes glimpsed through dense thickets. Wild animals have also crept into his paintings. “The elephant, in particular, is a symbol of stability,” says Helbling, suggesting that these works may be about a hope for inner stability amid China’s relentless economic boom and Zeng’s own surging career.
In 2006 his Mask Series 99 No. 3 brought $816,400 at Christie’s Hong Kong. Just a year later his 1992 Hospital triptych fetched $5.7 million at Phillips de Pury in London. Around the same time Zeng had solo shows at the Singapore Art Museum, the Musée d’Art Moderne in St.-Etienne Métropole, France, and Gallery Hyundai in Seoul. As a result of his success, he was able to lease the plot of land in Caochangdi and build his new studio.
Collectors have been coming ever since. New York collector-dealer José Mugrabi, who met the artist through Fabien Fryns of F2 Gallery in Beijing, had bought few Chinese works. “Honestly, I received many propositions from Chinese artists,” Mugrabi says, “but the only one who really interested me was Zeng Fanzhi.”
Mugrabi played a key role in Zeng’s deal with Acquavella. The gallery would seem a great fit for the artist, who first visited it two years ago to see a Lucian Freud exhibition. Only when he returned to the gallery in December to negotiate his own show did Zeng remember it was where he’d first encountered the British master, another key influence on his work.
Tentatively slated for December, the show will cover all periods of the artist’s career. “Serious collectors are likely to find it much more compelling than they expect, given their wariness about Chinese contemporary art being trendy,” says gallery director Eleanor Acquavella. “Zeng Fanzhi is above and beyond the trend.”
Zeng Fanzhi is represented by Shanghart in Beijing and Shanghai (shanghartgallery.com) and Acquavella Galleries in New York (18 E. 79th St.; 212-734-6300; acquavellagalleries.com), which is planning a show for December.
NEW YORK TIMES
Zeng Fanzhi: Amid change, the art of isolation
By Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop
Published: Thursday, May 3, 2007
SINGAPORE — Many Chinese artists have embraced American pop culture and fused it with social realism to develop their own artistic style of social and political commentaries on the fast-changing Chinese society. Among the crowd, however, Zeng Fanzhi stands out for the introspective nature of his work, which often reflects his personal life and emotions.
From the red scarves – a symbol of achievement in Communist China, something he yearned for as a child, but never got – to his famed “Mask” portraits, his take on Chinese society in the mid-’90s, Zeng’s work has always portrayed his own feelings.
The Beijing-based 43-year-old artist was recently in Singapore for the opening of a major retrospective of his work. In an interview, he pointed out, with the aid of a translator, that the ideological changes in China have clearly influenced him, but his work remains personal: “I grew up in the environment of the Cultural Revolution and all these ideologies take a lot of space in my mind, but when I paint I just want to portray my inner feeling and the people around me. I’ve never been interested in my art becoming symbols of political ideas.”
In the current frenetic Chinese contemporary art market, where many artists are happy to stick to a working “formula,” Zeng frequently alters his work and style.
“Zeng Fanzhi is one of the major artists shaping Chinese culture of today,” said Lorenz Helbling, director of ShanghART Gallery, one of the galleries that represents the artist. “He is reinventing himself all the time, not afraid of letting/leaving behind great and successful works, which may now sell for a lot in auctions, to develop ever new, surprising, more mature works even if they often confuse people at the beginning.”
“Idealism” – running at the Singapore Art Museum until June 3 – shows Zeng’s artistic evolution through 36 paintings that have been chosen to reflect his entire body of work, from his graduation piece in 1991 to several new, never-exhibited paintings. “We chose the theme of idealism because there is a certain celebration of ideals in many of his works, yet a certain sadness it might not be achieved,” said Kwok Kian Chow, the museum’s director.
Zeng, who was born in Wuhan in Hubei Province in 1964, during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, said that his family encouraged him to take up painting “to keep him off the street.”
While at the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts, he studied German Expressionism, which would have a strong influence on his work. The expressionistic style of his 1991 graduation piece, “Hospital triptych No. 1,” with its wild strokes and fleshy colors, attracted the attention of the Chinese art critic and curator Li Xianting and was selected by Johnson Chang of the Hong Kong-based Hanart TZ Gallery to appear in “China’s New Art, Post-1989” at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, a 1993 exhibition now famous for having brought several new contemporary artists international attention.
“I lived next to the hospital and because my house didn’t have any toilets I had to use those of the hospital everyday. What I saw there left a strong imprint on me,” said the artist, who used these memories for his Hospital series, which portrays doctors and scared patients in operating theaters and emergency rooms.
His second series, the Meat series, was also inspired by everyday experiences. Passing by a nearby butcher, he often saw workers laying on top of the frozen meat to cool down and sleep during hot summers. The artist remembers intense, mixed emotions: “Some feelings were of hunger, because I was hungry in those days, others were of horror, as the blood of the meat would stain the people laying on them. I think this is why I use a lot of red in my work, it fascinates me,” he said.
In 1993, Zeng moved to Beijing. “I felt Beijing was the place where I could create art and where my work would be taken seriously,” he said. “In Wuhan, when people looked at work they would smile, and in their smile I could see they thought I was crazy. In Beijing they saw I was a person with ideas.”
Yet after he arrived, the introvert found it difficult to make friends and his feelings of solitude and isolation became the main theme for his next series, the Mask series, where the well-dressed urbanized population wear white masks, looking at the viewer with blank stares or puzzled eyes. “In the mid-’90s, China was transforming very fast. Chinese officials started wearing suits and ties,” he said. “Everybody wanted to look good, but it also looked a bit fake. I felt they wanted to change themselves on the surface, and these are the feelings that I represented in the earlier Mask series. Later on, the series used more vibrant colors; I think it makes people look even more fake, as if they are posing on a stage.”
The Mask series, which first appeared in 1994 and continued until 2000, brought Zeng to international prominence. “Mask 1999 No. 3” set the artist’s world record at auction, selling for $816,400 in November 2006 at Christie’s Hong Kong. But it also pigeonholed him. “I didn’t want to be tied down and I wanted to paint freely, which is why I started the chaotic strokes style,” he said.
In 1999, Zeng started to paint people without the mask and by 2004 he had introduced helical strokes into his portraits, as evidenced in the exhibition in the Great Men portraits: five panels representing Karl Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao.
Most recently, Zeng has turned his interest toward landscape, which he is exploring in the Untitled (Night) series. Painting thick woods with or without people, Zeng is now using a technique of frenzied and animated lines.
“Sometimes I paint with two hands. Sometimes I use two brushes, sometimes four,” explained the artist. “With this new technique, I create and yet I destroy. One of the brushes is creating, while the other three have nothing to do with me. I like such creation which happens by chance. Sometime I will loose control over the image, but after you loose control you look at what you have and you try to get it back again.”
While his earlier work was influenced by German Expressionism, he said he has become more interested in Chinese cultural art since the late ’90s, especially the paintings of the Song dynasty, which influence this latest work.
“Having moved away from the more rigid model of European Expressionism,” Kwok said, “Zeng’s recent works combine a calligraphic touch with a more romanticist view of man and his relationship with nature.”
Zeng Fanzhi is a Chinese artist whose work looks kind of like a cross between Francis Bacon and Tim Burton. On Wednesday, a smattering of art world types and fellow Chinese A-listers showed up to fete him at the Acquavella galleries on the Upper East Side before a dinner at Phillipe on 60th Street. Despite the recession, the gallery sold nearly a dozen paintings at prices that ranged between $100,000 and $2 million each. Before the market collapsed, Fanzhi’s work was selling for as high as $9 million, but everyone professed to being pleased with the evening’s results – from the Acquavellas to the artist himself. “I’m very content,” said Fanzhi, speaking thorugh his translator as guests like Zhang Ziyi, Vivi Nevo and Wendi Murdoch munched on steamed dumplings, spare ribs and sauteed string beans. (Get it? Chinese artist, Chinese food.) But Murdoch said she was holding out on buying because the paintings were still awfully expensive. “I’m hoping to get the one I want at a better price,” she said with a laugh. As for Ziyi, she was feeling a lot of pride for her fellow countryman. “Whenever I have a movie here, someone else from China gets quoted saying ‘I’m so proud of her as a Chinese person. It’s great for our country.’ Well, tonight I’m thrilled to say that as a Chinese person, ‘I’m so proud of him.’” Go China!
Chinese contemporary art was sold just like hotcakes in 2008. Looking back over the past, collectors used to buy their artworks and resold them; however, Chinese contemporary art entered a new phase after this 4 years. The days people trade at a high were gone and truly valuable artworks have been demanded. We visited Mr. Zeng Fanzhi, who is well known with his Mask Series that had a strong impact on the world.
A New Expression Over East and West
Ichii: You are going to have an exhibition in Basel in September, and also a solo exhibition in London this autumn.
Zeng: Yes, I participate in Art Basel every year, but I will have only one artwork for this group show. I am looking forward to the one in London because it is going to be a solo show.
Ichii: At Gagosian Gallery?
Zeng: Exactly. I am going to exhibit some new landscapes, instead of portraits. I need some large works too as Gagosian Gallery in London is huge.
Ichii: As I see those landscapes you have here, they are all mysterious that branches and treetops look like they are singing together.
Zeng: Oh yeah? That is a new opinion.
Ichii: You have various artworks such as Balthus here in your studio. This Buddha head was made in around Tang or Sui, right? Do you like this kind of works?
Zeng: Yes, this is from Tang. The Buddhist statue in front of the entrance is made before Tang.
Ichii: I saw your works for the first time at preview of Asian Contemporary Art Auction in Christie’s Hong Kong held at Hermes in Ginza in 2008. “Mask Series No. 6” had a strong impact that I was impressed. I sometimes recalled your masks after that and that is why I wanted to see you.
Ichii: You had Hospital Series that have doctors and patients before Mask Series. When did you start them?
Zeng: Started in 1991, I made them as my graduation work for bachelor degree.
Ichii: It feels like there is a lonely spirit just as Picasso’s Blue Period in your Hospital Series. You express the spirits of patients confronting their terrifying diseases or death, and doctors helping them, not just a portrayal of hospitals. The scene of nurse holding a patient at the middle of the painting reminds me of The Descent of the Cross.
Zeng: I was just expressing what I felt, what I saw and what happened around me at that time.
Ichii: And it seems to be influenced by Steen as well.
Zeng: Indeed, I did get influenced by him. I got to know of him thanks to a Japanese book called “Asahi Weekly Encyclopedia: Arts in the World”. I read that in a library in the university in 1987. It had his artwork of a chunk of meat, which had a great impact that I never forget. I was really impressed when I saw the original in Switzerland later on.
Ichii: You were able to see Japanese publications at that time.
Zeng: There was only one set in the university that we could neither borrow nor read alone. So we gathered to go to the library and read it together. There was no other way to read it due to the strict control in China those days.
Ichii. You were 23 in 1987, weren’t you?
Zeng: Yes. I was young, defiant, and so-called an angry youth! Schools at that time taught socialistic realism, which is totally opposite from my artworks. We had to include a story in socialistic realism.
Ichii: Steen is one of the artists in School of Paris that had lonely artists such as Picasso, Modigliani or Pascin. I assume that you used to be a lonely rebel against socialistic realism.
Zeng: Schoolteachers at that time did not want us to paint this type of works. We could not attend any important exhibitions with them due to the poor demand. Any artworks cannot be accepted as long as you cannot attend an official exhibition. Teachers kept saying that you have to master the fundamentals of art before painting different types of art; however, in the end, we wanted to express ourselves.
Ichii: Works by Steen have an attractive movement and texture of oil paintings. The movement of crooked branches in your landscape looks similar to his.
Zeng: Artists who inspired me were not only Steen but also Francis Bacon, German expressionists and American abstract expressionists such as Willem de Kooning. I learned various types of art when I was a student in order to find my way to express myself. I painted this one in 1990, when I was a student.
Ichii: Such a great work. 1990 is before you graduate, or before you started painting the Hospital Series. There definitely is the similar spirit to Beckmann, Nolde and Kirchner.
Zeng: I got to be conscious to express my internal spirit with this work as a start.
Took an University Entrance Exam Having a Job
Ichii: You graduated from university when you were 27, which is, generally speaking, a little bit late. What were you before you got into the university?
Zeng: You generally graduate from university when you are 22, but I got into the university when I was 23. I started working when I was 16 without going to high school. I did not even finish middle school!
Ichii: So you liked painting since you were a child?
Zeng: Yes, I liked painting since I was little. There was not such a job as professional painter in China around 1980s. I had to have another job creating artworks. I got into a printing company in the end even though I wanted to have a job somewhat relating to arts or painting.
Ichii: Did the job sort of relate to art?
Zeng: Just a little bit. I sometimes drew a cut inserted within text or designed a book.
Ichii: When did you decide to get into a university while you were working?
Zeng: I did not even know that there was such a thing as art school when I started working. I got to know of it when I was 17 or 18. And I started to take an entrance exam after that; however, the academic exam was too hard to pass. Since I have not studied in high school, it was probably harder for me than others feel. That is why I spent 5 years to finally pass it and it was when I was 23.
Ichii: I heard there were only 8 students per a grade in oil painting department of Hubei Art School.
Zeng: Yes. Oil painting department was the most crucial one that teachers made the students painters. There were more teachers than students. We were proud of ourselves to get into the department then.
Ichii: The elect few, you all were the elites.
Zeng: All the teachers and students were always excited about freshmen in that department every year. Actually, we had to have an athlete ability as well to get into Hubei Art School.
Ichii: What do your parents do?
Zeng: They both used to work at a printing company.
Ichii: How old are they?
Zeng: My mother is 68 and father is 73.
Ichii: So are you the oldest child?
Zeng: Yes. I have a younger sister and brother.
Ichii: I have read an article saying your mother influenced you, but how?
Zeng: My parents were typical employees in 1970s and 80s, and both liked literature. My father was a young lover of literature who loved “Paintings of the Four Elegant Pastimes”. My mother also has more knowledge on literature and arts compared with others. I think it was rare for people to read all those famous novels like my parents did. So I guess they partially have influenced me. I still remember that they used to sing a song together because they also liked a Beijing opera.
Ichii: I can tell that people used to be able to enjoy various genres of arts in China before the Cultural Revolution.
Debuted in the World with Mask Series
Ichii: Cultural Revolution started 2 years later you were born in 1964. 10 more years later, in 1976, it ends due to the death of Mao Zedong. You were 12 years old then. And there are Junior Red Guards in “MASK SERIES NO. 6”. Is this because of your experience on Cultural Revolution?
Zeng: I surely did paint what my memory had in the Mask Series: for instance, red scarf, an old memory and some important incidents that I remember. In fact, Cultural Revolution is what I was told by adults rather than what I experienced directly on my own. The faces, behavior and actions of people scared me. For example, when I said something that went too far, my parents got confused and told me not to say such a thing in front of others. I think tension that was running through everyday influenced me.
Ichii: It feels that you simply painted your spirit itself in your Hospital Series that you started creating as the graduation work. On the other hand, you viewed yourself objectively in the Mask Series. Therefore, the Hospital Series is your portrait in a way, while the Mask Series has an objective view.
Zeng: Exactly, right.
Ichii: You changed your theme after debuted with the Mask Series.
Zeng: Next stage comes naturally after you finish up what you wanted to express in one series. I don’t want to stay at the same place. I always want to go forward to move on. I don’t think it is cool to express the same thing on and on tied up with old memories because I am still young. I want to express something new that nobody has done before. All the works including the Mask Series are the past for me.
Keep Everything in Nature Inside Himself
Ichii: A large number of landscapes have been painted in China since the Northern Song Dynasty, though there is not an old tradition of landscape paintings in Europe.
Zeng: Landscapes of nature were the most popular in the Northern Song Dynasty in China. I would say that all my works and contexts were more westernized; however, what I have been working on is rather Chinese traditional arts. I have been looking for an original technique that I can mix both western oil expression and eastern artistry.
Ichii: Guo Xi or Fan Kuan tried to have a dialogue to express what landscapes were, not copy the landscapes they see like a photo. So I think the way you think what the Earth is or how to have a dialogue with nature seems to be similar to theirs.
Zeng: Artists back in the Northern Song Dynasty lived in nature to produce artworks. My works could be recognized as both landscapes and abstract paintings. These landscapes I paint are the ones what my soul saw, not the reality. They are invisible landscapes.
Ichii: I have got an impression on your landscapes that the world exists inside your heart, not outside of you. They seem that you hold everything in nature inside of you even though you used to express what you had in your mind to emit them outside.
Ichii: You have used a word “miao wu” in the interview on Michael Findlay for Acquavella Galleries in the states. What does that mean?
Zeng: I have been thinking about how to mix western techniques and eastern grounds since I read a Chinese traditional book. That word means to realize it.
Ichii: What is this song you are playing here, by the way?
Zeng: This is an opera called “None shall sleep” by Turandot.
Ichii: This music makes these branches look like they are dancing in your painting.
Zeng: I like to paint listening to music. Sounds influence my works. Good sounds help me to come up with a clear image. I look for my inspiration picturing a figure with sounds when I am drawing. Listen to this sound, for example. Let me just tap it. *Tapping something like a drum or cymbals*
Ichii: What a beautiful sound.
Zeng: Right? This sound reminds me of a religious sound from a temple in Tibet, or a ritual sound. Even a statue in the yard can make a sound that seems to be what you hear in an old western church.
Want to Paint with a Simple State of Mind
Ichii: When you had an interview and were asked when and where you wanted to be born if you could have chosen, you answered that you wanted to work with Cézanne.
Zeng: Hahah, yes. What I wanted to say in that interview was how a genuine state of mind is important. It is important to have a genuine condition that you are painting apples and cans as if you were a teenager. I guess Cézanne was painting like that. I want to do it in that way too, back in those good old times instead of in this complex society these days.