[2006 Lu Peng] The Spiritual History of Depression and Sentiment

The Spiritual History of Depression and Sentiment

The Art of Zhang Xiaogang

Lu Peng


The art career of Zhang Xiaogang originated from Jean Francois Millet and Vincent van Gogh. While studying at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, a group of art enthusiasts including Zhang, Mao Xuhui and Ye Yongqing went to do sketches at the Nuohei Village, which was rumored to resemble the French town of Barbizon. Even though he did not make it to Germany and Europe until a number of years later, the inner word of these artists was similar to that of art predecessors such as Lin Fengmian and Liu Haisu of decades earlier: they looked for the roots of their new art forms from the Barbizon painters and their succeeding impressionist artists. However, by the end of the 1970s, the influence of the Soviet Union was still very much alive.

“Chinese art circles were very much dominated by their Soviet counterparts. The reason for our doing these sketches was in fact a pursuit of similar composition , colors and even emotions associated with paintings. It goes without saying that sketches of this kind are in themselves a very difficult job . Because to portray a sense of grayness and of elegant poetry by depicting red earth, blue sky and wildness that is found in the nature of Yunnan province is a bit farfetched. The same can be said of my later visits to Mount Gui: while searching for houses made of red earth and stones, for twigs and tree branches, and for the narrow paths, I was at the same   looking for traces of art works by great masters. Maybe the village itself is a divine but neutral place, which gives both human imagination and hallucination a foothold. On the one hand, I was interested in neither the local customs nor the rustic and plain lifestyle; on the other hand, I was always touched by the unique religious tranquility, by the music-sensitive woods, by the narrow paths and by the passing shepherd and sheep.”

His earlier ideas reflected his distinct personal features: the absolutism that is needed in the inner soul searching of the young. At the same time, he was unwilling to confine this absolutism to portraying landscape and the physical world. In Zhang Xiaogang’s introspection, we can observe the subtle psychological transition: although Soviet Union art kept influencing Chinese artists then, they have noticed their characteristics in relationship with nature, rather than with the socialist realism as promulgated by the authorities. This characteristic has been naturally expanded to far-lying France, where Chinese artists have found in French artists, such as Jean Francois Millet, holy spontaneity, which originated from the inner self and was linked to the soul. As a result, by the 1980s, the influence of Peredvizhniki had completely vanished into thin air. Yes,Zhang was influenced by Peredvizhniki but in his work the impact of the latter was not so obvious as that in the likes of Cheng Conglin, who has been clearly influenced by Russian artists. Music of the natural world is indeed very enticing but under the blue sky and the shiny sun, the red-earthed Nuohei is completely different from the nature in Barbizon. Therefore, although the “gray tune” that was initiated at the end of 1970s was extremely tempting, as had happened to the works of his  classmate Cao Xiaohua, it had to be replaced by a manifestation that is more adjacent to the current natural environment. Zhang admits that in earlier years he was influenced by van Gogh; he shared coherence with this French mental patient: the vibration of the soul is of paramount importance. The physical world is only one of many stimulating factors while art itself is a natural entity brimful of life. Life has its own inherence and is not confined by the physical world. Consequently, we can learn from the innate vigilance of the artist from his earlier texts. He loves everything in nature and feels passionate about it. But out of his own personal instinct, he gingerly dodges the worldliness that nature easily instills into those without conceptual powers.

“I finally see the vast grassland. Here, you can easily dwarfed and overwhelmed by the beautiful melodies and the profound meanings of each and every green wave. The world, pure and plentiful, uplife your soul, widens it, expands it and lifts it…Although sturdiness is one of characteristics of the Tibetans, what fascinates and enthralls me most is the kind of significance manifested from their faces. I do not wish to infiltrate into their life like many others do. The so-called social customs means nothing to people. I can not forget that I am here as an artist. What are important are the eyes and the soul. Keep some distance and I will find a sense of art and a form that reflects my personal attributes.”

Before graduating in 1982, Zhang maintained his longing for his simplicity and free expressions. He had undergone the phases of excitement and madness. At that time, Zhang Xiaogang fled to nature and to the inspirations of nature. His graduating piece of art entitled Grassland series was an examination of his inner self and feelings. The simplicity of Jean Francois Millet and von Gogh’s skepticism over psyche, at the same time, had been influencing him. His other works such as The Approaching Rainstorm and Clouds in the Sky have become a part of the literature on early expressionism. They differ from some of artists in the 1930s in that, while longing for reality, they have in store solace for the wounds of history. Meanwhile, artists innately knew what the inner world desired, but still many artists were obsessed with realism (although a number of them were only interested in the subtle “grayness” and the fabrications of the brush). Under these circumstances, Zhang Xiaogang rapidly gained the artistic perception which earlier artists had already acquired in the 1920s and 1930s. For the latter, they were aware of what to pay attention to right at the outset when employing a new way of expression:

“I have painted five oil paintings. Why is it that the last two feel better? Could it be because of their color or lines? It appears that much more is needed to reflect the contrasting superiority. So, I come to think of the complexities of art and of why art works by great masters, like J.F. Millet and Vincent van Gogh, could have in them such soul-shaking power? In addition to the basic elements required by painting, I believe that power also exists in the indescribable connotation that is expressed by the work, a spiritual power!

Not a world that is discerned by the sensory organs, not a conceptual image that subconsciously flows but the soul’s special reaction to nature, a landscape that is both natural and unnatural (nature in dreams). I think that that is what I want to accomplish in my inner world.

Pure, sincere and filled with wonderful dreams, all that is imbued with the known and unknown chaos, the awakening of puberty, the longing for sex and the reverie for the future.

In the eyes of bystanders, the artist may appear ridiculous but he is at the same time at his most blissful. That is precisely what I wish to express in my painting, ‘Clouds in the Sky’.”

These earlier texts are only the result of the unsophisticated temperament of modernism. What is important is not the sensitivity to form but rather the understanding of inner needs. The languages that are employed in the medium come naturally. What our readers ought to know is that at this time Zhang Xiaogang’s graduation work did not attract wide attention. His tutor seemed to favor the students who had studied the art of the former Soviet Union, using realism-created-drama critical of historical issues. At that time, people were preoccupied with that kind of drama and possessed no sharper eyes. That partly explains why Zhang Xiaogang did not stay on at his school to take a teaching post after his graduation.

The artist himself calls the period between 1982 and 1985 as the “dark era”. It was an era in which your fate was decided by someone else, and in his case, Zhang Xiaogang was allocated a job at Kunming Opera Troupe after his graduation from Sichun Academy of Art. His job there was to paint the stage scenery and so he was called an “art designer”, and not an art worker. The era in which he could breathe the fresh nature air drew to an end. Although he continued to do sketches at Guishan, he was confined to working as an art designer most of the time. Consequently, Zhang’s inner moroseness was imaginable. On top of that, his reading of Western books and obsessions with music have aggravated the artist’s depression, anxiety, loneliness and sadness. The era in which he thought that he had aims in life was gone. What was he going to do now? That he had to rediscover. However, what on earth was a non-professional art worker capable of doing at an opera troupe? So, instinctively, he painted, feeling at loose ends. He then started drinking profusely and living a life devoid of regularity, and was being tormented by ill health, until he was admitted into hospital because of alcohol-caused stomach bleeding. These all influenced the artist’s inner feelings. On the white-colored hospital bed, he recalled and resumed his memories of illnesses, fear, death—his sensitivities to and imagination of the supernatural world, which were formed in his earlier years when his mother was ill. In a word, everything was linked to the tragic aspects of life. After his hospitalization in 1984, the sketches and oil paintings that Zhang did started bearing images of the phantom world, while the somewhat idyllic motifs in his earlier works disappeared. In his phantom series, Zhang expressed what he felt on the hospital bed and inside the ward, using surrealism. He wanted to portray his fear of and anxiety about death. These paintings are imbedded with characteristics of a soul-diary.At that time, what the artist had in mind was more about the possible emergence of the soul in another world. A white bed is a place where spirits exist. However, it no longer is inside a hospital; it in fact resembles a kind of hell as described by EI Greco. In a picture using cold colors to depict a bed sheet and the environment, life has been transformed into an imaginary phantom from hell; and the physical objects that were devoid of life have become invigorated. Zhang did not forget the lambs that he saw on the grassland but the little lamb that lied on a bed was the weakness and misery of life personified. Indeed, compared with the arrogant and domineering bed sheet, the allusion was that life was so poorly and delicate that it, or its image, had come to symbolize death.

Paintings such as The white bed and Moving to the Edge: the Colorful Phantoms, Series 111 are art works that break away from so-called “Scar Art”; they deal with the emotional presentment of death and are the product of the abstract thinking of life and existence. Of course, anyone could use terms like “expressionism” to portray these products. What is important is that, in his precaution against the materialistic world, the artist started his complete turnaround in terms of his epistemology and had started to reconsider issues such as life, existence, death and religion. These were the same questions his artist friends were grappling with. The twisted images and somber     picture compositions thus became a visualized record of the artist’s cognitive shift. Artists of the 1980s acknowledged the infiltration of philosophy into art and they were enthusiastic about deciphering the existence of reality and the soul using terms of the Western philosophers, analyzing the past ideals that they no long had faith in. They did not try to spend more time on understanding what the ancient Chinese had left behind. As they had seen the Western world crammed with allurements, the warning from Jean-Paul Sartre became more fascinating.

“In 1984 I started working on the ‘Phantom’ series. At that time, my inspiration primarily came from the private feelings I had at the hospital. When I lay on the white bed, on the white bed sheet, I saw many ghost-like patients comforting each other in the crammed hospital wards. When night dawned, groaning sounds rose above the hospital and some of the withering bodies around had gone to waste or were drifting on the brink of death: these deeply stirred my feelings. They were so close to my then life experiences and lonely miserable soul. That was why I painted a series of sketches entitled ‘phantom between white and black, a hospital diary’. After I was discharged from the hospital, I continued to paint a series of oil painting entitled ‘ The Colorful Phantoms’, expressing the fear and solemn feelings the soul experiences while lingering on the threshold of life and death; it was also lamentation over the condition of life that some of us were in. The art language of mine was influenced by EI Greco and Salvador Dali; my thinking on the other hand leaned directly towards Western absurdist writers and existentialist theories. And I stressed the sense of misery and of suffering attributable to some kind of absurdity and convulsion.”

The restoration of life gives reason for rationality to rejoice. At the same time, when rationality learns of the width of life, it gives the latter a sense of humor, which is a kind of transcendental cognition. In that period, the artist wrote in his diary an interesting dialogue between the devil and life:

  ‘Please play the violin and sing a magnificent hymn to death’, says the devil.

  ‘Behold, the rising sun at daybreak. No, the thing that I am going to glorify by singing is the great existence between life and death’, says the phantom.

The insignificance of individual entities enabled the artist to seek for support by instinct. However, who will care for this poor life? Just like the earlier modernists in Europe who opposed the forces of academism and comradeship societies by grouping together or forming associations, young Chinese artists of the 1980s had to resort to themselves to safeguard and develop their beliefs. Although China in the 1980s had plenty of freedom and possibilities in store, it was up to the young artists who were equally dependent on the Chinese pople’s help to exploit the freedom and its possibilities.

In 1985, Zhang and Mao Xuhui and some other artists got a chance: they teamed up and organized an exhibition entitled No. Figurative. When Zhang Long, a friend from Kunming studying at the Art Department of East China Normal University in Shanghai, saw on his holiday in Kunming the paintings by Mao Xuhui, Pan Dehai and Zhang, he was “deeply moved and thought that paintings in Shanghai were weak, a bit too sweet and lifeless”, as was recorded in Zhang’s friend, Mao Xuhui’s interesting “No.Figurative, the artists and the community studying art in the South West”:

“He proposed that we hold an exhibition there (in Shanghai) and he would be responsible for the exhibition venue. However, the expenses should be borne by the artists. Therefore, it was paramount that we made some money first. So they went out and got themselves involved in a decoration company, designing, doing internal decors, etc. but without making satisfactory financial returns. They had not made much money when a telegraph arrived from Shanghai saying that the exhibition venue had been arranged. So we had to be on the move and fast! We did not have enough money so we had to borrow some. Pan Dehai brought with him 600 yuan (300 of which was lent to him by Xuhui), Zhang borrowed 200. Their art works filled 8 trunks and they went back and forth twice to transport the works by three-wheeled carriages to the railway station, where the pieces would be put on the train. The expense associated with the transportation by express train was dear; and more than 400 yuan were spent. Both Pan and Mao asked for leave to go to Shanghai but Zhang was stranded in Kunming. There were loads of things to do: paint the ad, have invitation cards printed, place ads, move the painting, mount them, etc. We did all these ourselves. At night, we stealthily went to live in the dorms or in the classrooms of East China Normal University. Of course, we had to dodge the school security guards. Our pleasant time was spent inside a cold drink bar at the school drinking Jazz Coffee. Also on the exhibition list were Mr. Zhang Long and Ms. Hou Wenyi, both of whom were from Shanghai. The former graduated from the Art Academy of Zhejiang Province in 1982 and was allocated a job somewhere in Hunan, while the latter had been struggling with life for years before getting a job at the Shanghai Museum of Literature and History and was also consequently living in poverty. It was she who proposed that the exhibition be named ‘No.Figurative’. The rest of us agreed to her proposal intuitively…just at this juncture, before the opening of the exhibition was about to start, someone else was brought along by Ms. Hou and he was a sculptor by the name of Xu Kan. He did not pay to come onboard our exhibition but we did ask him to buy some paints for advertising purposes. Eventually, the exhibition made its debut at the Cultural Museum of Shanghai Jinghai District in June 1985. A young girl brought us a basket of flowers. The exhibition venue cost 30 yuan a day and the ticket revenue did not belong to us. On that day, a lot of people came, people from the Shanghai art community, both young and old. Among them were the now deceased Mr. Guan Liang and Mr. A Da. The exhibition was very warmly received and was crammed with people. Inside the medium-sized hall were hung 120 items of art and as a result the place was more than overpopulated, so to speak. Along the corridors were planted a number of metal sculptures. That day, we lived in the ordeal of ceaseless handshaking and introduction making. The people universally felt that ours was an exciting exhibition.”

That was the accumulative result of collectivism. The attention that society paid to us reinforced the self-confidence of the artists concerned. As a matter of fact, between 1985 and 1986, exhibitions organized through this collective effort by artists became a commonplace phenomenon, which was to be known later as the “ 85 Art Movement” or “ 85 Art Ideological Trend”. It matters little how to call it. What is important is that it is an era that is the continuation of our appreciation and understanding the Western World, renewed following the lull from the 1930s during the anti-Japanese Aggression War to 1976. It was a symbol of the thought-liberating movement from the political perspective, in which Western thoughts, ideologies (including science, politics, philosophy and art) were considered to be an important comparison medium or reference source through which the country and the people could re-embark on the road of development. As such, holding joint exhibition was factually endorsed as legitimate and was given space to develop. The national ideology that the people were acquainted with continued unabated in its original form; but now anyone was given the latitude to reinterpret everything, so long as the interpretation in his/her mind was positive.

In Shanghai and Nanjing, the artists from Kunming received help from their friend, a poet, Zhangzhen and an artist, Ding Fang. Pretty soon, these expressionists invited the attention of art critics Gao Minglu and Li Xianting. They started organizing more concrete communities so as to hold long-term collective art activities. In no time Zhang became one of the initiators and organizers of the South Western Art Research Community. That was in 1986, in which Zhang had just been admitted into the Sichuan Academy of Art and he became what could be professionally known as an artist, a term which can not be so easily applied to his status.

Soon the “Devil’s era” drew to an end amongst hectic art activities and communal carnivals and the artists started their “Era on the opposite shore” (1986—89). Critics and some of the artists were a little bit critical of the “85 Art Movement”: how did the thinking on art become one on philosophy? Nonetheless, people employed the term “renovation of thoughts” to describe the artists’ interest in philosophical issues. Indeed, the contemplation on philosophical questions was a major landmark in the charge of direction of their epistemology. When the effectiveness of old ideologies was waning, how on earth do you view society and the people that are in it, which is in a transitional phase? Did the modernists in the Western World ponder over any philosophical questions? What were the ideals needed in this era? People started discovering that the real puzzle did not stem from the shackles of the fresh, but rather the choice one had to make in the vast, unlimited spiritual realm. What was soul? What should art be like today? Chinese artists of the 1980s were familiar with the famous lyrics of Paul Gauguin: “ Where are we from? Who are we? Where are we going?” Spreading in the friendly artist circles were letters such as the follows:

“What is the problem with this year? The world outside is so barren and lonely while our internal world is equally like a cancer: this is horrible. Xu Hui, honestly, I think that the condition I am in is lethal. Should the sublimation of tragic realization be bravery or licking your own wounds with sentimentality or letting the blood of life flow in vain and for no reason?…

You mentioned in your letter that ‘what should or should not be done. The world itself is getting increasingly without a clear reason or purpose, urging the flesh to go on.’  I felt that that was the focal point of our current sense of void. Yes, as time elapses, we are coming to appreciate the great prowess of absurdity; while, by contrast, our past dreams and passions are pale and weak, even ridiculous. But I feel that the history of the world may, just because of its being driven by maniacs, be changed from some ridiculous meaningless lapses of time into a certain kind of reasonable childishness. Just because they have in the promotion of the ridiculous, many matters, which had been insignificant before, became instilled with novel meanings and thus become some kind of fundamental things.” (From a letter from Zhang to Mao Xuhui)

“I have read your letter and felt the same way as I did with the previous letter. You ought to relax a lot. The burden you are shouldering is too heavy for you (this is the tragic truth as well as the characteristic of the people of our kind). I sometimes really want to be a bit simpler, keep my goal focused, go for it and build my own life on its basis, without considering the fate of Martin Eden. Think of it: had he not spent his first part of life in a kind of lunacy, he would not have been caught in disillusion and void, or rather, he would have not struggled for disillusion. In this process, all the fortuities might reflect the real meaning of things?” (From a letter to Mao Xuhui on June20, 1987)

“My delight was heartfelt at your recent performance in painting. I very much agree and understand what you make of the art works of the Middle Ages. In the past six months, it appears that I have been looking backward, while dispelling most of the so-called modern things. I think that this is necessary. As a matter of fact, we are not returning to ancient practices, instead, we out of inner desires long for some kind of simple but sacred ‘healthy spirit’ (which is based on the modern understanding of it). Although this spirit is getting extremely scarce, or has been exploited as a ladder up the social status game…” (From a letter to Mao Xuhui on November 10, 1987)

“…Our life is built upon art, which we regard as the highest and most worthwhile value system in our life. In the depth of our heart, there is something solemn, something that is responsibility personified…Had it not been for this earnestness, we would not have been able to be so tolerant till today, with tears in our eyes, of our most difficult time and when the whole of society had locked their gate against us.”(From a letter to Mao Xuhui on March 28, 1988)  

“It was fortunate that there had been great people like Plato and Hegel. That enabled the independence of spirits from human bodies, making this independent symbol of life last till now. Otherwise, human history would have been unthinkable. I often find my thoughts muddled in a paradox. The only thing I can do is to continue engaging myself in activities to do with morality and spirituality, while watching without cease martial arts films. What else can I do? You were right in saying that all those we encounter contribute to the way we deal with art, the outlandish and yet dear totem.

Yet, the reality often is rather weird, so lonely and quiet that it has almost become something at your disposal, which you can deal with at will and yet it will, like our hair, grow naturally. Has this been predestined? Just like sheep would never make the sounds of a nightingale? And are we like sheep?…”(From a letter to Mao Xuhui on July 2, 1988)  

“Thanks for sending me the ‘Remark on Art by Jean Paul Sartre’. I should say that this book was written exclusively for us. I often come to this conclusion when reading books about   human beings and ontology.”(From a letter to Mao Xuhui on October 3, 1990)      

The uninterrupted correspondence of Zhang formed his opinion of art at that time. What is interesting is that unlike van Gogh, who gave a comprehensive description of Albrecht Durer’s color, the young Chinese artists rarely talked about technique and colors. In a letter to Mao dated December 18, 1989, the artist clarified his basic view on this issue:  

“In our present condition, the most important thing is not the external problem such as the technique and style. Without spirit, previous artists would not have had forms. Without soul, there would have not been style or integrity. Without these, all art works are void.”  

The motifs of “Era on the opposite shore” and “Devil’s era” are not essentially different in nature. But Zhang has started a rational review of issues to do with life and death. The artist tried to experiment with paper: he sprayed colors on paper and then cut the outlines of the images with a knife. Usually, he burnishes part of the work and makes it look fragile. Belonging to this category is Lost Dreams, a collection of about 40 paintings done between 1986 and 1988, which is a trial series brimful with poetic characteristics. The painter uses both oil paints and pieces of cloth in the paintings simultaneously. Sometimes he uses simple oil painting to complete his dream world (one case in point is Eternal Love). Zhang continuously and even in a disorderly manner read books on philosophy and literature, and listened to what he considered to be tragic and lofty music. At the same time he was obsessed with Pink Floyd’s The Wall. In fact, all his readings and appreciation of music resulted in weird prose and poems. He did not want the poems to become ordinary eposes but rather they should become a symbol and metaphors. In his “Vast Sea” of 1989, we can see skulls omnipresent. What does the page of the book which has turned into the Holy Bible, or rather the two skulls on the book, want to tell us?

In fact, that red skull, instead of its being Jesus Christ, I would rather say that it is that of the artist himself. What is different from his earlier work on death is that, at that time, the image in his work did not lose its sobriety in life due to lack of physical integrity: people floating in water are contemplating; the skulls wandering in the sky are also about the issues of life; the hand leaning on a piece of leaf seems to be appealing. In the Last Dinner, the Jesus-shaped skulls are fully equipped with complete body parts, the floating broken limbs and the skulls all combine to constitute the skepticism about life, in a poetic sort of way. The goat skull and the card Spade A embody a hypothesis of the mystery. What on earth is there that is mysterious about spaces between men and women which merits considering? In fact, in many a work till 1991(for instance, Hand-written Note), his motifs had never strayed away from life and death; this kind of motif originated in the artist’s personal experience and was influenced or hinted at by Western philosophy. By 1989, the artist was reminded of the bloodiness and stimulation of reality. Thus, motifs to do with life and death were in his opinion an inevitable foundation. In a letter to Mao Xuhui dated December 18, 1989, Zhang wrote:

“The 1990s are to dawn soon. Once in the new decade, everyone has to admit that we as single individuals are limited…Recently, I feel that I have returned to the past, and have picked up again the music of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky; the likes of EI Greco, Sartre and Unamono have been placed beside me.”

In the view of conceptual artists, this kind of prosy artistic expression and state of mind is founded in the absence of epistemology and linguistics; it is a disguished form of sentimentalized writing.

        “I went to the post office yesterday to get the album ‘German Requiem’, which you had sent me. I have listened to it twice. As I am writing to you now, I am listening to it for a third time.

If Beethoven’s ‘Missa Solemnis’ was composed for heroes in a tragic situation, then Brahms’s ‘German Requiem’ was then composed for heroes in the optimal state. The vast musical   movement demonstrates the tremendous power it exhibits when the soul becomes sublime. It is said in a dictionary that this piece of music was created by the artists for his deceased mother, but I am of the opinion that the artist has surpassed his identity marks such as his name, place of birth, etc. when he is creating a piece of art. That he can create something touching which is attributable to his ability to elevate what he sees in everyday life to some kind of artistic form. So, may I suggest that the relationship between the artist and his work is a relationship between artistic form and artistic work? And this is the personality that has the power to innovate, a personality that is not merely in the form of existence.”  

         By the end of the 1980s, important artists represented in the “85 Art Movement” such as Wang Guangyi, Wu Shanzhuan, Huang Yongping and Zhang Peili were no longer discussing sentimentalized issues. The South Western artists defended themselves by asking if the issues to do with existentialism had been really resolved. In the same letter, we also noticed a subtle change: Zhang had realized the importance of the intellect of epistemology. “Maybe we can say that art shoud mean some kind of national control over things?” (From a letter to Mao Xuhui dated Dec 4, 1990)

During the contemporary art exhibition held in 1989, Wang Guangyi’s remark on “cleaning up humanistic passions” because a challenge to the expressionist artists. In 1988, the art field started a discussion on the “Ontology of Language”. The contrast between the following schools was not only in forms: the “rational painting” as proposed by the Northern Art School, the New Space School’s indifference, and the expressionists and the abstractionist painters. Among the artists, the future of art remained divided, while the South Western artists were of the opinion that art expressions starting from scar art had strayed from true art questions. At the moment, the rise of academy realism (as represented by Jin Shangyi, Yang Feiyun and Wang Yidong) were mixed with what the modernist artists debating over, creating some sort of chaos. Nonetheless, the sentiments of the South Western artists were endorsed by art critic Li Xianting’s “Big Soul” theory. However, the “Big Soul” slogans were no longer voiced after June 1989, because it could easily be used on art as a weapon to assault reality. All artists were in a state of bewilderment and confusion, waiting for and expecting the possibility of any changes, if at all. Speculation continued but Zhang had no new conclusions to draw. The so-called return to reality by the artists was only to link social and artistic realities together after many years of discussing on the question:

    “What a crazy and nihilistic era we are in! Look at the impatient fellow artists. There is something unspeakable but I feel that our muteness means not a kind of timidity. For me, it is more a kind of solitude. I feel that we and those simple ‘destroyers’ are in two separate worlds and have nothing to do with each other. We have nothing to do with the nihilistic power     holders, have nothing to do with the mannerism which attempts to estrange art from the  human spirit in order to please the senses and to be owned by wealthy patrons only. Maybe the spiritual idealism as represented by van Gogh has forever gone. Maybe, this era is awaiting a new type of van Gogh. For me, life without belief is like life as a maggot: pathetic; and a world without ‘religion’ lives the life of a whore. In my opinion, art has not been able to decorate people’s lives. Art is not a luxuriant overcoat or as many people have testified, art is only a technique, something that can sell you daily necessities. (Of course, this includes art in the forms of illustrations). On the contrary, art itself means a kind of life. ‘It represent a belief’. What is strange is that after the Beijing visit, I have been in retrospect reviewing the state of mind we were initially in…” (From a letter to Mao Xuhui dated March 17,1989)

In a letter to Mao in April 1990, Zhang expressed his opinion on Li Xianting’s so-called “big soul”. His understanding was that “it was the kind of holistic strong sentiment and big consciousness that is found in the works of artists such as Beethoven, Sibelius, El Greco and Francis Bacon.” In the same letter, he said that he preferred new expressionism more. In the quagmire of mannerism in the 1970s, they took up the most basic and blazing human features to point at the problems associated with contemporary life then, returning art as a new concept to the human domains, in which art initially was an integral part. Zhang was insistent upon his firm belief:

    “I believe that the misery and confuction we have experienced and are experiencing are not confined to us, they are not a haphazard product.” (From a letter to Mao Xuhui dated November 7,1990)

With regard to the art of other artists, he said that

       “We can never view art as an isolated object like those who are organizing a ‘linguistic revolution’; such an attitude would bring loneliness and misery. We are not creating some kind of horrific monsters and phantoms visiting cities and villages but rather, devils are driving our spirits and bodies to march towards an unknown world.” (From the letter to Mao Xuhui dated November 7,1990)

Those who were revolutionizing the language may be tempted to ask: “What devils? What are the phantoms? What do you mean by sufferings and miseries?” Nobody responded to such questions. Between 1990 and the beginning of 1992, the new generation of the north and the cynical realism paintings originated and started to exert influences. Nobody continued to go further along the logic of the essentialism route. In 1992, the remark by Deng Xiaoping on his southern tours of China once again changed the political theme that had started in June 1989. At least in the coastal regions, people discovered that in the market economy mechanism they would rediscover their own path of development. At that time, artists in Wuhan, in central China, were creating new Pop Art. They were preparing with enthusiasm for the Guangzhou Biennials. At the beginning of the year, Zhang went to Germany and saw with his own eyes art works by great masters he worshipped. When he was bidding his friends farewell, he all of a sudden felt something that Westerners might find hard to comprehend:

   “Look. I am going to the hometowns of F. Nietzsche, H.Hesse, M.Heidegger and A.Kiefer. But I cannot help feeling sentimental. Those are glorious names that have motivated me and I considered them to be my soul mates. I was touched beyond description by their ideas and life experiences. I have no idea from what time I have come to appreciate with clarity the fact that my bona fide name is China. With sorrow, I have pulled my soul and heart back to a bottomless abyss, and have to carry a new baggage to engage the glorious names in a new dialogue. What would happen as a result of this? `    Nobody knows clearly. ” (From the letter to Mao Xuhui dated June,1992)

Zhang’s visit to Germany was only three months in duration. Before heading back to China, he wrote a letter to artist Ye Yongqing and art critics Wang Lin (in August). In it, he admitted that when face to face with Western art, he was not as moved as he had thought he would be:

“I have seen many a Documenta Kassel and famous Contemporary Chinese Art exhibition. Truth to be told, the first impression was not that exciting. Like the Westerners, we have to see things in their cultural contexts, from which if you are a bit far away, you can not sufficiently appreciate many of the art works”.

The artist made a comparison between capitalist Germany and socialist China and drew this conclusion: in comparison, China has seen great and fast changes in the past ten years, like an upstart. Just like Uncle Deng hoped, some of us became rich first. He noticed that in the Western world the previously antagonistic and rebellious Avant-Garde art had proliferated and was omnipresent. He felt that the deepest impression he had after coming to the West was that there was too much art, too many art forms and they were too liberated and consequently not so noticeable. The meaning and value of art itself has been tampered with and dismembered. That was a vivid contrast compared with what was happening on Mainland China.

       When he was discussing his disappointment at the absence of such great artists and their works such as J. Beuys and Anselm Kiefer at the Documenta Kassel, he also expressed the luxurious aristocratic atmosphere contemporary Western art was in (visiting the exhibition were such international VIPs as the King of Belgium, the Queen of Holland, etc.). This apparently was somewhat different from what the Chinese artists had conceived of the state of Western Art. At the same time, the group of Chinese Avant-Garde artists represented at the exhibition (Lv Shengzhong, Wang Luyan, Ni Haifeng and Li Shan) was “K18”, whose ‘underground’ characters made it feel like a foil. (From the letter to Wang Lin and Ye Yongqing dated August 24,1992)

In October that year, Zhang came back to the Chinese Mainland. Now, he had a new ideological background and personal experiences to tap into: his assured understanding of the once mysterious Western art and of the vitality generated by domestic commercial trends. Previously, also troubled by self-depression and with a pure sense of inner conflicts he had completed The Black Trilogy and Hand-written Note, which did not fit in well with in the Chinese domestic atmosphere. The gloomy channel between life and death is really only a bigoted illusion or some psychological needs that are hard to shake off? What on earth is the relationship between reality and illusion? For the modernists, the soul is of absolute importance but can the soul itself become an object of renewed examination? The artist himself had employed the term “spiritual realism” but by the latter half of 1992, he started using another term--contemporary art. It appears that he found the exploration of essentialism to be a bottomless abyss, despite the fact that he retained his obsession with sentimentalism and moroseness. Clearly he stated that “the approach to getting into an artistic state is characterized by distinct individualistic art styles (the right approach to the language of the art); at the same time, it also goes beyond the mannerism knot (new style, new Manner, etc. which belong to the ‘original image thinking pattern’ ) ”. He thinks that that is a very harsh problem facing the contemporary artist community. Was it the stimulation of rampant Pop Art, which was sweeping the art scene at the 1992 Guangzhou Art Biennial, or was it the influence of the cynical realism that resulted in Zhang’s pressing need to consider the language problem?  The fact is that as a sensitive artist, he was well aware of the importance of changing the art language. Whatever it was, he knew that up to that point modernist artists had not made a true success, and were not able to be acknowledged by the art mechanism and to fully appreciated by society. They were still orphans living in the still of the night and their days were not of much value. At the beginning of 1992, Zhang said to Mao Xuhui: “ By now, although we feel that some progress has been made, our heads are getting bald and we still not be able to play through the game. But not for a single moment do I not feel clearly that we are still a group of underground artists, like a bunch of drug smugglers. There is nothing that makes one sadder or more disappointing than the realization that they are still a marginalized group”. However, when in the West, the artist found that no matter what, the soul had to go home. That gave the artist a huge challenge, because home had not truly accepted him. At least at that time, Zhang still used such terms as “lonely and helpless”, “the breakup of personal life”, “foreordination”, “tragedy” “reminiscence”, and “the depth of soul”. By 1993, he still called himself a “mental loafer”. In March that year, his painting Hand-written Notes was categorized into the traumatized romantic group in the “Post 1989 China New Art Exhibition”. However, “Political Pop” (as represented by Wang Guanryi, Yu Youhan, Li Shan etc) and the “Sense of Humdrum and Trend of Ruffianism” (as represented by Fang Lijun, Liu Wei, Wang Jinsong and Wang Xiaodong, etc) became the focal points of the public.

Zhang was indifferent to those paintings that were clear in drawing technique and specific in concept. Maybe he was strongly stimulated and felt the inner appeal for change. He gingerly analyzed everything that he was familiar with:

“What is it that we are in command of? What really belongs to us that we can unequivocally claim to be ours? What will come about in accordance with our will (fate, life, history, culture)? Fate is fickle like poker cards and it may change continually like flowing water in that it goes up and down. If we see those resolute martyrs, we feel the paleness of life today and even the hypocrisy. Look at those actors who rush into the spotlight. Do we not feel confused by and meaningless at the obsession and greed these public figures display? Human souls wander everywhere but they will never find home and shelter. What are we in control of? We are sober to the fact that we are sensible, rational crawling creatures living in concrete reality.” (From a letter to Mao Xuhui dated June 1,1993)

Anyway, after such long meditation and experiments, Zhang seems to be breaking away from his obsession with the bottomless abyss. That year, he painted several paintings that became a crucial turning point in his career: Yellow Portrait, Red Portrait, Bloodline: Mother and Son, Red Baby. Yellow Portrait and Red Portrait feature his friends Ye Yongqing and Mao Xuhui. We may regard these two paintings as an experiment with the attempt to get rid of excessive expressionist language.

Bloodline: Mother and Son and Red Baby and the first two works belong in content to the same group: bloodline, life, growing pains and imaginable death. Zhang kept the former core and motifs of his art; he even retained his earlier surrealistic psychological characteristics--the accidental light and the combination of objects that is devoid of natural logic. The artist steadfastly maintained what he considered to be the most important aspect of art and in the meanwhile opened up his art language expression. By the end of 1993, Zhang was moving towards the typical iconological path, until the emergence of the piece Bloodline: A Big Family in 1994. By then the “shackles” of expressionism had been completely deprived. What on earth gave rise to the change in the artist’s art language?

“The elements that constitute my recent art works stem from, in addition to what history and reality have instilled in our complicated mentality, some old photos from a private collection, and from charcoal drawings that were seen everywhere in the streets. I cannot say clearly which string of my never in the depth of my soul was pulled by these ornately decorated old photos. They made me think and I loved them. Maybe because at that time these old pictures not only gave one some kind of reminiscent joy but also presented a certain simple, direct but somewhat illusionary visual language, which validated my mind to reject enigmatic mannerism and bloated romanticism. At the same time, such iconological languages like old pictures and charcoal embody things that I am familiar with but indifferent to, among which are the aesthetic requirements that ordinary Chinese have long been accustomed to, such as the emphasis on collectivism at the expense of sacrificing individualism; modest, neutral but poetic aesthetic features”. (From “Self-Account”, 1995)

Was it the passage of time that aroused the artist to rearrange the figurative resources? Zhang’s family background was in the revolutionary cadres, with which people born in the 1950s were familiar. That kind of family to varying degrees kept their earlier photographs taken during the revolutionary and the rebuilding years. They were very different from the even earlier photos in which people were photographed in long gowns and mandarin jackets. On the contrary, the old pictures between the 1940s and early 1970s were directly linked to the living Chinese—parents and children—emotionally and historically. They even went through some of the important historical periods. The fate of his mother was an earlier psychological shadow in his mind. But when the old images popped up again and showed how time had elapsed, the artist was filled with unnamed sorrow and melancholy. How on earth was life born and how does it grow? What connections are there between our past and present that we have to fully understand and respect? Individual experiences in the decades or so life vary. However, the understanding of time and its passage may be uniform. The stories may have been forgotten and even its many details cease to be important but the images that awaken the memory are touching. In 1993, the artist painted in a small room along Zouma Street in Chengdu a work entitled Tiananmen. With a rundown brush, he created a deserted time and kept the expressionist shackles that we can see in portraits and other paintings. With his understanding and analysis of images, the artist finally discovered that meditation on life and death, and on history and reality, could be done in the absence of any expressionist approach. In other words, it explored, through the suppression of inner feelings and sentimentalities, the soul in a more rational way. This is an old expression but Zhang left the intrepid room for the state of mind which could be described as modern but not contemporary. He believes that the changes in working styles and ways of expressions are significant characteristics of contemporary life, and that the history of a spiritual soul can not end because of a change in its name. He is not willing to participate in contemporary operas that are brimful of comedian qualities because he knows that in a consumer-led era, in an era in which sorrow could be packaged and sold as commodities, people are increasingly getting inseparable from self-deception; also, people consume gratitude and sorrows issued from everywhere, the excitement from different cultures, the arrogance of VIPs and the humbleness of small potatoes, the intense joy of victors and the awkward self-mockery of the defeated, the cruel game of war and the many weird varieties of lovemaking, the torment of multiple overlapping love, surreal special functions, Diego Armando Maradona’s addiction to drugs, the real reason or Marilyn Monroe’s suicide, the breast circumferences of Ms. Ye Zimin and Mr. Ye Yuqing, the number of sex partners Madonna had, the skin of Michael Jackson, the foot burn that my friend sustained, a queer-flavored dish that a small restaurant came up with, someone is losing hair at a rising speed…etc, etc. (From a letter to Mao Xuhui dated June 1, 1992).

However, even though the artist discover cynical realism, political pop and the subsequent Gaudy Art, he decided against being involved with any of them. Although he was still lonely, many critics were skeptical of the ambiguous, plain characters in his works. They suspected that the artist had, in taking a calendar approach, easily sunk into the snare of tackiness, and in the process, had lost his sharpness and will to fight in the battle for modern or contemporary art.

   Of course, the lonely guy was incapable of authentically changing himself. What he yearned for was warmth and care but he believed that the price of being acknowledged was not treason. He remembered the days and nights spent with his friends on the banks of the “Seine River” in Kunming, when they in darkness or under the lamplight discussed ideals and disillusions, love and death. He was well aware that the meaning of life in contemporary society could not be traded with compromises. He would rather live in solitude than act on stage as a clown. He abhorred superficial things and formalities. He even disliked the word deconstruction but would rather insist on the mentality and spirituality of Joseph Beuys. In 1992, when Zhang saw with his own eyes the works by Rene Magritte, whose name he saw and remembered in an old book on the art history of the Western World, he was deeply touched:

   “His plain, simple and tacit art language reorganizes different settings and objects in reality into an imaginary space, creating some kind of specific mental dislocation and illusion. thus, one enters a dreamlike spiritual realm through his paintings and finds in it multiple meanings and perspectives spirit-wise. These shocked me and made me worship the artist.” (From “My Soul Mate-Magritte”, “Art World”, Edition132, Shanghai Art and Literature Publishing House, 2001)

So, he rediscovered his soul mate and more steadfastly realized that in looking for his own art path, at different phases, there would be different partners. In the art works of those masters he found his confidants. But, what was his own spiritual world? So, “as an artist develops, he has to bid farewell to some of those masters he once was obsessed with, and make acquaintance with other predecessors with whom he has to interact”. Zhang then simplified the complex contents of his earlier surrealism. The unique historical background and his special experiences then led him to another direction, which was triggered by the old photographs. “Hear, it is not calendar art but what I have learned from Magritte or Giorgio de Chirico, which is to relive our long and solemn history at a distance, and to face the capricious reality in which we live.” The way the photos were decorated also became an inspiration for new ways of expressions.

The concept of decoration is fraught with uncertainties, which makes the paintings of Family and Bloodline series phantasms that the artist has created. By the 1980s, sensitive artists have agreed that photographs are not equals of realistic objects. Not only does the camera lens change the view, the level surface itself determines the independence and irreplaceability of the images. Are these time-worn images emblems of ‘real likenesses’? Indeed, people born after the 1950s are very familiar with the kind of photos that Zhang was referring to. The orderly and standard poses.

And standardized facial expressions were considered symbol of the past era. The complex thing is the artist did not try to bring about the reappearance of a bona fide “big family”. Obviously, the situation was far from as simple as the recollection of the artist with the help of the photos. He started reinterpreting the impressions the photos left him. He presupposed the meaning given to him by experience and knowledge and noticed the subdued level features on the faces of the people photographed after the pictures had been processed by the original photographer. The artist mentioned the various kinds of blood relations: kinship, social and cultural ones. But was the projection of this rational knowledge indeed the main reason for the bloodline motifs? Would the inseparable knot become a clue to that little red thread?

Before the emergence of the matured Family series of works, the artist’s experiments were a simulation of the objects that he captured with his eyes. Of course, the simulation is not a term used to mean the reemergence of reality. Rather, it means it is a direct source of inspiration, a physical reality that is captured by the artist’s eyes. When constantly reminded by such elements as pictures to think about other matters, he was more obviously in the process of constructing mentality. Photographs are not history itself but it may be called a reminder of history. This reasoning more or less resembles Plato’s theory: images themselves are not facts. As a result, Zhang tolerated this indescribable mental condition. He decided to indulge himself in the production of “phantasm”. The application of light, the raising of points, the obtruded refraction of the light, the thin red thread, the facial arrangement that is completely different from the photographs, the sudden appearance of other colors amidst the wide area of grey, etc, etc. A phantasm that has been instilled with ideological coloring was thus given birth. However, would it be true to say that a Chinese born in the 1980s or a Westerner would understand the image that the artist had intended to convey? It is very difficult to say. Similar to Fang Lijun’s circumstance, the image is not a systematically adjusted object: an accidental reason; a consideration on Magritte; some details that are being supplemented to form a complete image of phantasm, which is not the opposite of reality or opposes the reality; nor is it a simulation of illusions. To different artists, phantasm is one of their ways to break away from all shackles. Zhang’s phantasms are so rich in possibilities that those terms such as umbilical cords of our time have been called into action. Is there anything more real than this kind of illusion? At the 22nd Sao Paulo Biennial in 1994, Zhang exhibited his spiritual Bloodline series and the Family series. In many other exhibitions after that, Zhang won popular acknowledgement. The morose and sentimental spiritual history was deducted from some phantasm images. The people understand the feelings of the artists and want him to continually recount the more complicated relationships and hidden feelings. Gradually, the people—and not the artist himself—established and fermented a kind of aesthetic mode of the history of spirituality.

Later, Zhang extended the scope of memory and he took an interest in objects to do with time: old light bulb, old telephone sets, empty wine bottles, candles that have almost run out of their life span, and knocked down ink bottles…

In 2006, Zhang started an experiment in exploring visual resources in the history of socialism. Now, maybe he no longer harbors any doubts about the authentic understanding of life and death, and the questions on his mind are no longer the relentless questioning of essentialism. On the contrary, what could become the inner solace that is imbued with vitality and vigor amidst the current and historical cultural resources? Our reminiscence has been resumed once again: the images of history, the previous living conditions and what was considered to be a simple but energetic scene of rebuilding. But these are no longer clear, just like our memory, which is also limited. The artist has stated that “ (we ought to) observe history and reality at a distance. At the same time, we would build an ‘imaginary kingdom’ ” in which our soul may temporarily rest. To be able to read and appreciate Zhang’s work still requires a knowledge of history. The artist chose the photographs that were the products of crude equipment, which are the scenes of the socialist period in history. What is different is that in these scenes, turmoil and discordant sounds have disappeared, rendering them the opposite of peoples’ memories. In his art works, socialism is very bleak and places which should have been crammed with a multitude of people are instead devoid of revolutionary spirits. Zhang has changed utterly and completely peoples’ recollections of socialism. He wants to say: “As a matter of fact, what is seen in the paintings is only a legacy of history and the once buoyant and in full-swing construction scenes are only a hazy memory. When we reassess history, why can we not read the past through the perspective of today? Why can we not reinterpret what has been presumed to be established truth, whose legality is rather doubtful?” The artist retains typical symbols of history—red flag, loudspeakers and other historical properties. By re-portraying historical scenes, he hopes to trigger people into recalling and reinterpreting history and historical issues. The artist of course is not trying to provide a rational political answer but he simply tries to keep his long years of contemplation over life, history and the spirituality of human beings in his own work, so as to furnish a source of solace in his inner world. So, in the illusionary kingdom (phantasm) that the artist has created, we can still make sense of the history of a lonely soul and of its moroseness and sentimentality.