[2004 Chang Tsong-zung] Between Reality and lllusion

Between Reality and lllusion

Chang Tsong-zung


Critical analyses of Zhng Xiaogang’s work are usually based on its iconography and style, which reveal a strong consistency whether the works are studied from the angle of artistic intention or personal history. If we look at the “phenomenon” of Zhang Xaogang, and consider elements of his art that have helped to establish his position in the art world, we can look away from Zhang’s psychological and personal history, to focus on his contributions to artistic language in contemporary Chinese art.

There is a quietly seductive, s well as disturbing, appeal to Zhang’s paintings. They hover between realistic depiction and dreamy illusion. Zhang has achieved this by bringing together a number of polarities. Zhang used a technique based on western academic realism to suggest unreality and illusion; he portrays a private insular world by means of a public artistic language, hinting at unspoken public trauma through individuals’ secrets. Over twenty years, Zhang has managed to resolve the passage of his own style from an early expressionistic period to a form of classicism. In both its merits depend very much on the fact that he has found new solutions to harnessing western classical academic technique (a standard training in Chinese academies) to turn it into an indigenous artistic language.

Zhang Xiaogang is very much a product of the Chinese art academy system, and out of this heritage he has developed an iconography and identified a special sensibility that in many ways define this era. Because Zhang’s footing is within the academy system, therefore the system may also claim credit for his success. So it follows that Zhang should be looked upon as a paradigmatic success model of the Chinese art world. Bloodline and Amnesia and memory, the two series that have made Zhang’s reputation in the 1990s focus on portraiture, a subject underlined by concerns round the visual portrayal of the Chinese figure, especially on issues about the adaptation of western classical painting to local needs. In the 1980s Western classical technique was reinstated as the norm for Chinese art academies, especially at the Central Art Academy , but the technique was never totally naturalized; apart from the fact that academic art was held back by conservatism, falling behind the vanguard in experimentation, it has not created a completely satisfactory “Chinese” solution to technical approach and stylistic expressions. Zhang’s answer to this problem is to revive the charcoal portraiture technique developed in the Republic era, so s to capture subtle facial expressions through a surface treatment approaching flatness. This solution makes a cultural connection with the pioneering era of the 1910s when western painting technique was first successfully borrowed by popular art to portray the figure, when it was adapted to mass culture in the spirit of popular fold taste. It is therefore close to traditional Chinese taste, and may successfully claim to be a new paradigm.

It is interesting to point out in this context that Zhang hs basically avoided the full body in these series; the few isolated examples showing a full figure were claimed by the artist to be “experiments” (in conversation with the author) implying them to be premature examples concerning the portrayal of a “Chinese body”. Traditionally, the shape of the body in Chinese art was mostly implied by the volume and flow of the garment. Most figure drawings depict the body as stationary; and when the body is in action, as depicted in prints of opera scenes, it usually resembles a stationary pose, suggesting timelessness rather than a fleeting moment. It follows that in visual art the “per-modern” Chinese body usually belongs to a situation and a scene, and cannot be described independently of either the garment or the action. This “situated” Chinese body differs from the European one in that the latter is the sum total of two parts: an independent nude body and its clothing. Although Zhang has largely avoided the body, yet by calling upon the custom of traditional figurative art his stylized facial features and the stiff frontal pose already imply the rest. Generally speaking, Zhang has fulfilled the art academy’s ambition of creating a national classical figure by going into the Chinese past, drawing upon standard traditional portraiture.

Thematically, the subject of the family is also classically Chinese. Through the Chinese tradition of portraiture, Zhang has drawn upon the classical iconography of ancestor portraiture of which every Chinese would have vague collective memory of “ancestor portraits” naturally stays within bounds of the photography studio.

The skills of realism have been used by Zhang to depict a situation that seems to be neither real nor imaginary, drawing the audience into the other reality of art. In a realm straddling reality and fantasy, the viewer is invited to linger upon the ambiguities bordering that which is public and the private, memory and forgetfulness, personal and artistic reason for Zhang’s success in the recent decade. He has reinvented a classical icon to articulate both unutterable public taboos as well as each person’s private secrets.

Zhang’s success is to have explored a sensitive area wedged in between various dichotomies, articulating secrets that long to be told but remain suppressed. Bloodline and Amnesia and Memory reflect the historical problem of the clash between family and nationhood, about confliction loyalties and public wounds still seeking resolution. The artist has exposed this dimension of history through the confines of the protagonists are held captive, fossilized as stilled faces. Each one tries to show his best side to the world as this is the memory he is leaving to posterity. Each is making an effort for memory in the future. This fixed moment is therefore a moment suspended between past and future, when each person is joined to the others for eternity. Here we find a common understanding between them that cannot be readily articulated’ it is like sharing a secret, a common wound. We are not told the contents of this wound, but the artist seems to imply that we should know anyway because we have arrived from that same history. Perhaps this is the significance of Zhang’ art for this era. He has portrayed a public iconography, and has captured the complex emotions hidden by history’s public face. As such the Bloodline imagery is recognized as a defining icon of our time.