[2008 Jonathan Fineberg] Memory and Desire

Memory and Desire

Jonathan Fineberg


April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.


          T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” (1922)


It is the task of great artists to create the psychic spaces in which we can bring together our inner life with the inevitable facts of our existence.  These border states are specific to the artist and to a moment in time and place.  And yet the artist goes so deep into the specificities of this experience as to reach a common humanity which we can all understand.  The brilliance with which Eliot crafts such a space in these first lines of “The Waste Land,” using his art to open the border of our psychic space with the world, gives us room to ponder how we fit inside and outside together.


Green Wall - Slumber No. 2 (2008) is a painting by Zhang Xiaogang that takes us to the interface of memory and desire.  We gaze down on the simplified volumes of a face. Is it a baby's face? She looks so beautiful.  Is she sleeping?  Is she about to awaken?  Or has she drifted into death?  The patch of yellow light that rests on her features has just a little too much shape, it is a touch too yellow against the near colorless forms to be about the observation of nature. Instead it directs us into the complicated pathways of reverie.  The face fills the composition.  It looms large, as in a dream, and the grey monochromy with which the artist renders it pushes the image back in time like a faded photograph.


“Grey gives people the sense of a being unrelated to reality, a feeling of the past,” Zhang Xiaogang tells us. “...Grey represents my personal emotions and it is connected to my own temperament.  I like the feeling of grey.  It is a forgetful feeling that can also evoke a sense of dreaming....”   Green Wall - Slumber continues the investigations of the artist’s Amnesia and Memory paintings in its style and composition.   Like them, it evokes the poignancy of memory and a nostalgia for the past.  But it is not the real past we long for; it is a re-imagined past, shaped by the anxieties and the wishes of the present.  It is what we wish we remembered.


“Memory isn’t a thing that can actually present the past,” an individual’s memory undergoes “continuous revisions,”  the artist explained.  In 1993, on a visit to his parents’ home in Chengdu, Zhang Xiaogang happened upon some old yellowed photographs in a family album.  Seeing his mother as a beautiful young woman took him by surprise and opened a portal of introspective fantasy.  Through the old photograph, he reconfigures history in imagination.  The photograph inspired the figure of the mother in the first group of the artist’s celebrated Bloodline: Big Family paintings that began in 1994 [fig.1], but in the Amnesia and Memory paintings the presence of this photograph - now layered in idealizations, fantasies, associations, and desire - disperses into a conceptual space in which to contemplate the mysteries elicited in the softly sensuous but indistinct face of a work such as Green Wall - Slumber.


The “Green Wall” of the title, however, remains unseen in this painting.  Green Wall - Wooden Bench (2008) shows a melancholy interior with a slatted wooden bench, a radio trailing a long cord that is plugged into an extension, a small leather case on one end of the seat, and a clock hanging on the wall, that reminds us of our unwilling obedience to the passage of time.  But halfway up the wall is the ubiquitous green paint - the “official” paint of communist China.  We see the same green wall in Green Wall - Military Uniform, Green Wall - Room with Flashlight, Green Wall - White Bed, Green Wall - Reader, and Green Wall - Two Single Beds (all new works in this exhibition).  We find the institutional green of these interior walls in a waiting room, behind the family couch, in various bedrooms (as though we might expect it to enter and define the private space of all bedrooms).  It also covers the exterior walls of government buildings and compounds all over China.  Looking at the green wall we could be inside or outside, in a public or private space;  the green wall defies such boundaries.  The green wall defines a psychological space that is more than the happenstance of place and observation.  Green Wall - Slumber occupies that mental space.


Another current series called In-Out also complicates these boundaries.  In the earlier (2006) paintings in this series we find a single point of sharp focus.  In-Out No. 1 [fig.2] has a crisply described flag pole in the foreground of a landscape otherwise blurred, like an out of focus snapshot;  In In-Out No. 7 [fig.3], the artist clearly delineates a bare bulb hanging from a cord, while blurring the rest of the room.  In these works the single, sharply focused element stands out like an enigmatically vibrant detail in a dream or in an early memory where all else seems unclear and evanescent.  It is often the seemingly most insignificant detail, Freud tells us, that unlocks the hidden meaning of a dream.  The bare light bulb hanging from a cord in paintings like Green Wall - Military Uniform or Green Wall - White Bed rings with a potentiality of insight, affirmed by the artist’s own train of association:  “The history or memory has gone, but the memories or the past are still fresh somewhere. So we can see the bulb.”   Memories emerge in detached fragments, charged with feeling, and the fluidity with which they flow through our consciousness parallels the instability of our grasp of history, which is constantly under revision.


For a Chinese painter this exploration of history has particular meaning in the wake of the successive campaigns that constituted the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).  History was required to be forgotten.  The famously forbidden “Four Olds” - “Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, Old Ideas” - led to the massive destruction of historic temples, books, some people even destroyed their family photo albums in fear.  The government sent Zhang Xiaogang’s parents to jail for their political beliefs when he was fourteen and then dispatched him to a rural farm in Yunnan.  “I felt that we were really living in a struggle between remembering and forgetfulness,”  Zhang Xiaogang recalled. The entire youth of China were “sent down” from the cities to the countryside for “re-education.”  They were forced to renounce their parents and to sever all relations in order to become the children of the Party.  Many of them became swept up in the idealism of destroying the past for a Utopian future of social equality, but they were too young to grasp the importance of remembering and to understand the way in which their hope for a better future required the historical values that led people to find common purpose.  Instead, armed bands of seventeen and eighteen year old Red Guards overran the country bringing about a reign of chaos.


In 1969 troops were dispersed across the country to restore order.  But after a brief lull another, different “revolutionary” campaign ensued.  No one was untouched and “virtually everyone in China, at various stages of that movement, participated,” writes Xujun Eberlein in her stories of the Cultural Revolution. “There was often no clear divide between victims and victimizers, and people took turns to be in both positions.”  


The Cultural Revolution ended with the death of Mao and a month later the overthrow of the ruthless “Gang of Four” in October 1977.  Entrance exams were reinstituted for the newly reopened colleges after a ten year hiatus and Zhang Xiaogang entered the prestigious Sichuan Academy of Fine Art with an extraordinarily talented class from a decade long backlog of gifted students.  The years 1977 to 1979 were a period of reflection as young people returned to the city to find no jobs, often relying on the parents they had denounced to live.  History itself changed again as they looked back to compare official and unofficial versions of the decade they had just lived through.


"For me,” Zhang Xiaogang told an interviewer, “the Cultural Revolution is a psychological state, not a historical fact. It has a very strict connection with my childhood, and I think there are many things linking the psychology of the Chinese people today with the psychology of the Chinese people back then.”   But the changes in China today have been so rapid that even a decade ago seems like far distant time.  In so far as Zhang Xiaogang’s paintings address memory and history, they are also intrinsically political.  They concern the disjunctiveness of history and events.  In a new series of paintings entitled Description (also titled with the precise day and year of their production) the artist directly addresses this cognitive dissonance.  Watching television, he takes a snapshot of the screen when he sees an image that interests him, he paints it and then inscribes a text over the image of something else he has been thinking about which may have no relation to the image at all.  The layering of simultaneous streams of information, intersecting and interacting but coming from altogether different places also concerns the way in which we experience events and the power of our minds in structuring them.


 “The thing is to find a truth which is true for me,”  the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard noted in his journals, and Zhang Xiaogang was profoundly influenced by his reading of existentialist writers (Kierkegaard, Sartre, Kafka) and by both psychoanalysis and Zen philosophy.  “By chance I read a book by the important Japanese Buddhist Suzuki Daiseki on the relationship between Zen and psychoanalysis, combining them to talk about the meaning of life, the analysis of dreams, the meaning of existence.  The book had a profound influence on me.”


As we find ourselves sliding further and further into a virtual world with increasingly mutable boundaries between nature and culture, memory and history become important spaces of cultural and personal re-invention.  History has always been rewritten by the needs and exigencies of the present; but today the boundaries of subjectivity have become so permeable that history has become imbued with nostalgic sensuality as never before.  Although contemporary China has had a particularly pronounced dissonance between the official and the remembered past, the issue of the revision of history and memory has a rapidly increasing global resonance.  This may be one of the reasons for the pronounced impact of Chinese painting today and of Zhang Xiaogang’s painting in particular.  We have long used sleep to sort the emotional residues of past and present, the real and unreal.  But in the world today fragmented psychic time meets “natural” time ever more frequently in our waking life.  In the vast erotics of memory and history we need great painters more than ever before.


1.   T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land,” (1922), The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1952), 37.

2.   Zhang Xiaogang, cited in Julia Colman, “Big Family: The Later Work of Zhang Xiaogang,” in Zhang Xiaogang (Tampere, Finland: Sara Hildén Art Museum, 2007), 160-2.

3.   The series began, he said, in 2000 with Amnesia and Memory: My Girl.  “I was missing my daughter,” then six years old and living in another city.  Zhang Xiaogang, lecture          delivered at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, October 23, 2007, with simultaneous translation by Professor Gary Xu.

4.   Zhang Xiaogang, cited in Julia Colman, “Big Family: The Later Work of Zhang Xiaogang,” in Zhang Xiaogang (Tampere, Finland: Sara Hildén Art Museum, 2007), 159.

5.   Sigmund Freud remarks upon “the remarkable preference shown by the memory in dreams for indifferent, and consequently unnoticed, elements in waking experience”  already in his discussion of the literature on dreams: Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (First Part), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume IV, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute for Psychoanalysis, 1953), 18ff.  Later Freud repeatedly discusses the use of such seemingly “unimportant” details in the analysis of dreams, as in Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (First Part), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume IV, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 19), 173: “In the manifest content of the dream only the indifferent impression was alluded to,...” and so on.

6.   Email from Zhang Xiaogang via his assistant Amanda Zhang, to Jonathan Fineberg, 8-14-08.

7.   Zhang Xiaogang, lecture delivered at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, October 23, 2007, with simultaneous translation by Professor Gary Xu.

8.   Xujun Eberlein, “Swimming with Mao,” Walrus (July-August, 2006).

9.   From an interview with the artist conducted by Francesca Dal Lago, May 2, 1999, cited on http://www.legacy project.org/index.php?page=art_detail&artID=870/.

10.   Dru, Alexander. The Journals of S?ren Kierkegaard, Oxford University Press, 1938, entry for August 1, 1835.

11.   Zhang Xiaogang, lecture delivered at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, October 23, 2007, with simultaneous translation by Professor Gary Xu.