Top Ten Chinese Artists (Beyond Ai Weiwei)

Artsy Editorial

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’.

The Garden of Memory

by Brice Pedroletti March 15, 2011

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.

© 2010 le Monde. This report was re-edited by the author for The Global Journal




Zeng Fanzhi

Conversations with leading cultural figures
— November 28, 2012 —

Zeng Fanzhi, Praying Hands, 2012
Zeng Fanzhi, Praying Hands, 2012 © Zeng Fanzhi Studio. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Zeng Fanzhi, Pure Land, 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, Hare, 2012
  • Zeng Fanzhi, Pure Land, 2012
  • Zeng Fanzhi

Zeng Fanzhi

Dez 20, 2012


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.”


Gagosian Gallery

November 29th, 2012 – January 19th, 2013
6-24 Britannia Street
London WC1X 9JD




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.

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.

Chuck Close, courtesy Pace Gallery

The artist Zhang Huan.

Zhang Huan Studio, courtesy Pace Gallery

“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.


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 specifics of 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 capacitiesZhang continued 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 his discomfort, 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.


zhang huan: q confucius at rockbund museum

zhang huan: q confucius at rockbund museum

original content
zhang huan: q confucius at rockbund museum
Dec 23, 2011



Zhang Huan’s Painterly Buddhism

Poppy Fields
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 in scale

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 X

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 Art Star Meets British Pub


Mary M. Lane
Oct. 4, 2013 9:35 p.m. ET

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.'”

Liu Xiaodong: Half Street

Lisson Gallery, London, 27 September – 2 November

By Paul Gladston

White Pub, 2013, oil on cotton duck © the artist. Courtesy, Lisson Gallery, London

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


 Issue 137 March 2011 RSS

Liu Xiaodong

Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, China

imageFor 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’.

Carol Yinghua Lu



Openings: Yue Minjun – “L’ombre d’un fou rire” @ Fondation Cartier

Posted by sleepboy, November 22, 2012
AM_YMJ_FC - 07

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…

Photo credit: Fondation Cartier, Desîgn, Pace Gallery, philippe pataud célérier.
Discuss Yue Minjun here.


yue minjun exhibition at fondation cartier

yue minjun exhibition at fondation cartier

yue minjun exhibition at fondation cartier
Aug 09, 2012

Showing: Yue Minjun – “The Road” @ Pace Gallery (Beijing)

Posted by sleepboy, July 11, 2011

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…


Art | Xu Zhen Interview

4 months ago by in Arts & Culture

Art | Xu Zhen Interview

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.


Play-(201301) Installation
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.

Play 201221109 Silicone, iron, hemp cordage, feathers and shells

Play 20121109
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.

Exercise 9, Posture 10

Exercise 9, Posture 10
Video, performance, documents

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.

Xu Zhen

Xu Zhen


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Copyright 2013. FIASCO Publishing Limited. All Rights Reserved.
FIASCO Radio Live
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's photoJörg Heiser is co-editor of frieze and co-publisher of frieze d/e. He is based in Berlin.
Mao Yan (1968)
Posie Musgrau
oil on Canvas,
72.5 x 53.5 cm
oil on Canvas,
36 x 27.5 cm

<< back

Mao Yan
Chinese, born 1968
Available works
Mao YanPortrait of a Woman, 1991€15,000
Mao YanRichard No.1, 2011
Mao YanRichard, 2012
Mao YanMy Student, 2012
Museums and other collections
Mao YanAndrew Chalwers, 2010
Mao YanPosie, 2010
Mao YanJim, 2010

About Mao Yan

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

 Zhang Zixuan
China Daily
Asia News Network
Beijing July 1, 2013 1:00 am

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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.”


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.

Learn more at



Zhu Jinshi: Boat

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

November 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

1 / 3

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.’


13/06/2013 02:41:26

 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

Monday-Saturday, 10am–7pm

Pearl Lam Galleries, 601–605, 6/F, Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, Hong Kong

Images: Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries

by Tara Wheeler

Zhu Jinshi(Diptych) Wind in Lhasa, 2012

: LUSH Art – Zhu Jinshi at Pearl Lam Galleries :

Posted by on Wednesday, June 26, 2013 · Leave a Comment


Thanks to Pearl Lam Galleries for the private dinner surrounded by the amazing contemporary painting works by Chinese Abstract Master Zhu Jinshi, at his “Reality of Paint” exhibition. Being one of the revolutionary Chinese artist, Zhu Jinshi began painting abstract works in the late 1970s, and participated in the Stars group exhibition, the first avant-garde art exhibition after Cultural Revolution.



His use of colors, free-flow brush strokes, and the thick oil on canvas technique is absolutely mind blowing. The painting is not 2D but 3D and each of them gives you a totally different interpretation.


The richness of the details and the effects of shadows are all different in each piece. You can take a closer look at the zoom-in shots below.


God Particle B

This red piece is totally captivating. The epitome of the power of red.


Tone on tone is not boring with all these textures.





The side shot of this piece gives you a different impression from the front – the flow is almost like the power of tsunami and movements in the ocean.


The overwhelming flows and colors are never boring to look at. You can totally imagine the piece will give you a completely different impression if it is placed in another space or matching with other decors.


The amazing floral arrangements on the dining table, with the beautiful piece at the back.




This piece is showing a varying brush strokes with a differing color combo from the other pieces. The story is that Zhu Jinshi received a piece of news that his friend in Germany had a stroke and therefore his sad emotion is expressed through this piece, with the Chinese word for “stroke” as shown here below.





Hard Roads in Shu 1

This is another famous piece that Zhu has created a different feeling by using a Chinese traditional painting technique of leaving some blank space on the canvas.



And we have sneaked in to the office space and saw this cute “East meets West” chair designed by Danful Yang at Pearl Lam Design. Incorporating the monogram materials from fake branded handbags and the traditional Chinese chair, it comes to this interesting 2-seater chair.


After dinner, we all had a little bit of fun with our GLUSH/ Grassy Clutch =)

Thanks Althea, International Director of Pearl Lam Galleries, for modelling!


Johannes with our Grassy Clutch =D  IMG_8646

Thanks to Michael from 2individuals for the support of GLUSH/! He’s carrying our Oops! Clutch in Black Checks and Gold Paint.

This exhibition is definitely worth a look. The visual impact is overwhelming and it has brighten up my day.

It is on from now until 13th July 2013 at Pearl Lam Galleries Hong Kong:

601-605, 6/f, Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, Hong Kong


Zhang XiaogangThe Position of Father, 2013
Li ShanUntitled, 1994
Yang FudongLook Again Nr. 3, 2004
Mao YanRichard No.1, 2011
Xu ZhenThe Starving of Sudan 17, 2008
Yue MinjunBlue Sky and White Clouds, 2012
Liu XiaodongBathed in Sunlight, 2008UCCA Limited Editions
Zhang Huan12 Square Meters, 1994
Zeng FanzhiMeat, 1992

featured posts


ZHU JINSHIQinggong (Light Body Martial Art), 2006, oil on canvas, 180 × 160 cm. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

QIU ZHEN ZHONG, Work 0019, 2000, ink on xuan paper, 45 × 68 cm. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

ZHU JINSHI, Black Zen No. 1 (left), 1991, oil on canvas, 65 × 55 cm. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

LI HUASHENG, 0305, 2003, ink on xuan paper, 148 × 365 cm. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

ZHANG JIANJUN, Noumenon (Existence) Series, 1989, acrylic, ink, xuan paper, wood, stone and papier mache on canvas, 84 × 75 × 8 cm. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

Exhibition view of “Chinese Contemporary Abstract, 1980s Until Present,” Hong Kong, 2012. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

Chinese Contemporary Abstract, 1980s Until Present: Mindmap

Web Review BY Olivier Krischer
Pearl Lam Galleries

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.



You are here: Home >> Arts | Posted On Tuesday, 2013 Feb 05


Edited by: He Xin, Islet Xue, Janet Chiang

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, 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

2013.01.16 Wed, by Translated by: Fei Wu
The Enigma of Zhang Xiaogang
  • Installation View of Zhang Xiaogang

Beijing Voice: Zhang Xiaogang,” solo exhbition by Zhang Xiaogang

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.


Zhang Xiaogang Opening at Pace Gallery in Chelsea Last Night

By Robert Sietsema Fri., Mar. 29 2013 at 12:54 PM
Click on any image to enlarge

“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.


ArtSeen May 4th, 2013


by Robert C. Morgan


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.

Zhang Xiaogang, “Child-Sailor,” 2013. Painted bronze, 80-1/8″ × 28″ × 28″, overall installed 44-1/8″ × 24-7/16″ × 22-1/16″, sculpture 36″ × 28″ × 28″, base. Cast of 3. Edition of 3 + 1 AP. Courtesy Pace Gallery.

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.

Zhang Xiaogang, “Young Woman,” 2013. Painted bronze, 89-1/16″ × 36″ × 36″ overall installed, 59-1/16″ × 33-1/4″ × 29″ sculpture, 30″ × 36″ × 36″ base. Photo by: Kerry Ryan McFate / Courtesy Pace Gallery.

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


The History Boy
Zhang Xiaogang in his Beijing studio; in the background, his Green Wall—Two Single Beds, 2008, oil on canvas.
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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.”


Arts & Entertainment

An Art Star’s Creative Crisis

As demand explodes for Chinese art, the country’s most expensive living painter copes with fragile health and staying relevant


Kelly Crow
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.

China’s Biggest Art Stars

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.

The artist in his Chongqing studio in 1994. © Zhang Xiaogang, courtesy of Zhang Xiaogang Studio

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.

Feeling Stymied?

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.




July 26, 2013

Q&A with Chinese Contemporary Artist Li Shan


  • Artist Li Shan
    Artist Li Shan
    Photo by Soojin Seelye

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 The Last 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.

BOMB 118/Winter 2012 cover

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, a new media art institution based in Basel, Switzerland. Visit his website here. Photo by Marianne Burki.


Yang Fudong

Chinese, born 1971
Available works
Yang FudongThe Evergreen Nature of Romantic Stories (5) (情氏物语之四季青 5), 1999
Yang FudongHoney 5, 2003
Yang FudongForest Diary, 2000
Yang FudongLook Again Nr. 3, 2004
Yang FudongBlue Kylin (青•麒麟), 2008
Museums and other collections
Yang FudongAn estranged paradise, 2002
Yang FudongThe First Intellectual, 2000
Yang FudongEast of Que Village, 2007

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
Yang Fudong in Shanghai.

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 , I had my own 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.



Yang Fudong
Contemporary Elegies

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: One half of August
13 September – 6 November 2011
Parasol unit, London


Yang Fudong, First Spring, a short movie directed by Yang Fudong for the Prada Men Spring/Summer 2010 advertising campaign. © Yang Fudong / Prada

Yang Fudong, First Spring, a short movie directed by Yang Fudong for the Prada Men Spring/Summer 2010 advertising campaign. © Yang Fudong / Prada

Yang Fudong, First Spring, a short movie directed by Yang Fudong for the Prada Men Spring/Summer 2010 advertising campaign. © Yang Fudong / Prada

Yang Fudong, First Spring, a short movie directed by Yang Fudong for the Prada Men Spring/Summer 2010 advertising campaign. © Yang Fudong / Prada

Yang Fudong, First Spring, a short movie directed by Yang Fudong for the Prada Men Spring/Summer 2010 advertising campaign. © Yang Fudong / Prada

Yang Fudong, First Spring, a short movie directed by Yang Fudong for the Prada Men Spring/Summer 2010 advertising campaign. © Yang Fudong / Prada

Yang Fudong, Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, Part 4, 2007. Deutsche Bank Collection. © Yang Fudong Courtesy Yang Fudong and ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai

Yang Fudong, Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, Part 4, 2007. Deutsche Bank Collection. © Yang Fudong Courtesy Yang Fudong and ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai

Yang Fudong, Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, Part 4, 2007. Deutsche Bank Collection. © Yang Fudong Courtesy Yang Fudong and ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai

Yang Fudong, Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, Part 4, 2007. Deutsche Bank Collection. © Yang Fudong Courtesy Yang Fudong and ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai

Yang Fudong, Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, Part 4, 2007. Deutsche Bank Collection. © Yang Fudong Courtesy Yang Fudong and ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai

Yang Fudong, Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, Part 4, 2007. Deutsche Bank Collection. © Yang Fudong Courtesy Yang Fudong and ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai

Yang Fudong, Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, Part 4, 2007. Deutsche Bank Collection. © Yang Fudong Courtesy Yang Fudong and ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai

Yang Fudong, Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, Part 4, 2007. Deutsche Bank Collection. © Yang Fudong Courtesy Yang Fudong and ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai

Yang Fudong,Fifth Night, 2010. 35mm b&w film, 10 min. 37 sec.  © Yang Fudong Courtesy Yang Fudong and ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai

Yang Fudong,Fifth Night, 2010. 35mm b&w film, 10 min. 37 sec. © Yang Fudong Courtesy Yang Fudong and ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai

Yang Fudong, Dawn Mist, Separation Faith. 35mm black&white film, projected simultaneously on 9 free standing screens. © Yang Fudong. Courtesy Yang Fudong and ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai

Yang Fudong, Dawn Mist, Separation Faith. 35mm black&white film, projected simultaneously on 9 free standing screens. © Yang Fudong. Courtesy Yang Fudong and ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai

Yang Fudong, Dawn Mist, Separation Faith. 35mm black&white film, projected simultaneously on 9 free standing screens. © Yang Fudong. Courtesy Yang Fudong and ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai

Yang Fudong, Dawn Mist, Separation Faith. 35mm black&white film, projected simultAneously on 9 free standing screens. © Yang Fudong. Courtesy Yang Fudong and ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai

YANG FUDONG, No Snow on the Broken Bridge, 2006, 35 mm film transferred to DVD. Courtesy the artist and ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai, and Marian Goodman, Paris/New York.

No Snow On the Broken Bridge

Yang Fudong

Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation
Australia China
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

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 BackyardHey! Sun is rising (hou fanghei, 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 style and 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.



Vincent Johnson: The October Paintings

October Painting 1 and 2, Los Angeles, California by Vincent Johnson

The October Painting 1 and 2, Los Angeles, California by Vincent Johnson

The October Paintings - numbers 3 and 4

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.

October Paintings 3 and 4 - three of three

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.

October Paintings 3 and 4 - two of three

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, underpainted on October 31, 2013. Van Nuys, CA

October Paintings 5 and 6, underpainting – layer one – October 31, 2013. Van Nuys, CA

October Paintings 5 and 6.on 11.01.13 no .3 October Paintings 5 and 6.on 11.01.13

The October Paintings, 2013, under painting layers, Los Angeles, California, by Vincent Johnson

The October Paintings, 2013, paintings one and two, under painting layers, Los Angeles, California, by Vincent Johnson

The October Paintings (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist 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 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.

Vincent Johnson

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.

New Abstract Paintings: The Cosmos Suite 2012-2013


This is Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles.

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

with  matisse.artcat

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

Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles, California

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