【2012 Jonathan Fineberg】The Space of Amnesia: Zhang Xiaogang’s New Work
Green Wall No. 1 (2009), though not chronologically the first painting in Zhang Xiaogang’s Green Wall series, signals precisely this conflation of nurture and desire as he looks back to his revered teacher, Lin Ling (1918-2007).  He took the composition directly from Lin Ling’s watercolor Class Hatred, National Trauma, Always Remembered (1970), morphing the sun-filled room of his adopted artistic father into the somber dusk of his remembered childhood, draining out the color, reimagining the room as if from an old, black and white photograph.  The bare light bulb, hanging from a cord in the middle of the room, with a wire dangling down is the one element Zhang Xiaogang added to Lin Ling’s composition. This light bulb first appeared in Amnesia and Memory no. 21 (2003), though the cord resembles the blood lines that began with the Red Baby (1993) and persevered in the Big Family paintings.  Zhang Xiaogang remembers that his father liked to plug extension cords into the light sockets in this way and in discussing the motif he realized it had unconsciously appeared as a recurring symbol of his father.   Here it is a light that has somehow made the room darker.
   A vibrant, living color comes rushing back into the faces in Zhang Xiaogang’s figures in My Father and My Mother (completed immediately after Big Woman and Little Man) and although the “father” and the “mother” still gaze impassively forward and inhabit the same interiors, now the children look at them.  The artist has suffused “the two works, My Father and My Mother” with the “feeling” of “looking at my parents. But in My Father, my image changed to be a little girl.”   In part this transformation into a little girl resonates with the artist’s deep identification with his own daughter, reflecting on her looking at him.  But it also expresses the mobility of the artist’s own identity as a kind of exquisitely distilled sentience that can displace itself at will from the boy to the little girl and even to the mother.  My Mother seems to be reaching out to understand this distant mother.  In My Father, the child doesn’t look quite as directly at the father as the little boy looks at the mother in My Mother, hinting at a slight difference in the connection between child and parent in these scenes.  But both paintings convey an excruciating vulnerability in the questioning look of the children.  They – perhaps most of all the boy – are at once open, receptive, with fragile and porous boundaries around themselves.  
     Zhang Xiaogang also painted a new work in 2012 with “many Chinese traditional elements in the painting, such as a stone, a plum blossom, as well as something modern,” (a flashlight).  “I call the painting The Book of Amnesia.”   Open on a table in his studio as he worked on this painting were books of traditional Chinese paintings by Tung Ch`i-ch`ang, Lan Ying, Ni Zan as inspiration for the way he would portray the tree trunk and blossoms.  In the memories lingering behind The Book of Amnesia is an ancient parable, retold famously during the Qing Dynasty by Gong Zizhen in his “Account of A Sanitarium for Sick Plum Trees” (1839), praising the plum tree with gnarled branches and crooked trunk as more beautiful than the ones with straight limbs and admiring the blossoms  scattered on the ground rather than those thickly covering the healthy tree.  Hearing of this the sellers of plum trees in Gong Zizhen’s tale sought to make money selling only those with fallen petals and bent trunks, destroying the trees with straight stalks and dense blossoms.  But in selling only the challenged trees, they weakened the lineage of strong ones.  Implicit is Gong Zizhen’s critique of Qing society, which he saw losing the vitality to renew itself.  
 The tangled roots of the tree in The Book of Amnesia recall some of Zhang Xiaogang’s earliest work: the rock forms and the tangled folds of fabric in works like The White Sheet (1984) and in the tree roots of The Lives Pressed Together (1988).
I found everything so remote but, at the same time, familiar when I occasionally looked into the mountains, rocks, pine trees and plums depicted in old literati paintings. My innermost feeling which was awakened by the same mountains, rocks, pine trees and plums has been totally and utterly changed. Moreover, like an apparition, it hides deep down in my vessels. The very trees and rocks have become the storage of memories and emotions from various eras. Forced by the rapid change of time and perspective, I cannot help but feel urged to face up to these things once again…  
The clash of old and new in the work – the plum and the flashlight – aims “to strengthen a feeling of time flying and highlight a kind of forgotten memory.”   The book is a diary; a personal conversation with oneself, and the painting as a whole – like so much of Zhang Xiaogang’s work – concerns the “still life” in which memory, imagination, creative play, his cultural history and the present may be arranged and rearranged.
     “From 1994 to 1996, I chose to use the ‘Big Family’ to reflect the theme of individuals and society,” Zhang Xiaogang told an interviewer in 2007.
This artistic style allowed me to investigate what exactly this relationship is and the particular contradictions and mutually dependent relationships that exist within society....After all, the family is a collective concept and my generation has a particular relationship with the idea of family and it is closely tied to our collective memories.  Because of this, the subject of my work, beginning in 2000, began to reflect the perplexing relationships that develop between people and the turbulent lives they lead. 
     In another interview he said: "On the surface the faces in these portraits appear as calm as still water, but underneath there is great emotional turbulence. Within this state of conflict the propagation of obscure and ambiguous destinies is carried on from generation to generation."   Zhang Xiaogang is perpetually rediscovering the past – the bloodlines of his cultural past and his childhood – and reimagining it in the present.  But in these new works, the children are more alive and in the present.  Whereas in the Big Family paintings of the 1990s, each figure exists in isolation, asserting a formal unity while suppressing their anxiety, here he seems to accept Rilke’s “solitude,” allowing the children to examine their experience directly and acknowledge their emotions.  
     Zhang Xiaogang’s “amnesia” is the space of creative play where past and present, remembering and forgetting, the “me” and “not me” come together.  In these new paintings, he frees us to enjoy the illusions that make us whole rather than dispelling them into a disintegratingly all too real present.  He shows us a nurturing use of the past and affirms our capacity to be alone in our search for the lacunae of our experience.  Here we can acquire our individuality as we simultaneously separate ourselves from and yet remain in the embrace of our past.  

[1].D W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (1971) (New York and London: Routledge, 1982), 50.

[2].“In playing, and perhaps only in playing, the child or adult is free to be creative.” D W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (1971) (New York and London: Routledge, 1982), 53.

[3].D W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (1971) (New York and London: Routledge, 1982), 52.

[4].Zhang Xiaogang, email to the author, October 30, 2012, (translated by his studio assistant).

[5].Zhang Xiaogang, email to the author, October 30, 2012, (translated by his studio assistant).

[6].Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, letter 6, Rome, December 23, 1903, trans. Stephen Mitchell (N.Y.: Modern Library, 2001), 54.

[7].Zhang Xiaogang, from a series of recorded interviews over 2010-12, conducted by Professor Gary Xu and the author.

[8].Zhang Xiaogang, email to the author, October 30, 2012, (translated by his studio assistant).

[9].Zhang Xiaogang, email to the author, October 30, 2012, (translated by his studio assistant).

[10].A Statement Written by Zhang Xiaogang 31/08/2010 and modified by him 31/10/2012 in an email to the author.

[11].Zhang Xiaogang, email to the author, October 30, 2012, (translated by his studio assistant).

[12].Zhang Xiaogang, cited in Julia Colman, “Big Family: The Later Work of Zhang Xiaogang,” in Zhang Xiaogang (Tampere, Finland: Sara Hildén Art Museum, 2007), 155.

[13].Edward Lucie-Smith, “Zhang Xiaogang,” in Umbilical Cord of History: Paintings by Zhang Xiaogang (Hong Kong/Paris: Hanart TZ Gallery/Galerie Enrico Navarra , 2004), 12.