[2009 LengLin] Zhang Xiaogang

Zhang Xiaogang

Leng Lin

For artists who have been living in China for the past decades, the development and change of the society brought to them an enormous impact. From the end of the 1980s to the beginning of the 1990s, Chinese society experienced a tremendous transformation in various aspects during this period of time. Moreover, such transformation has a long and lasting effect on the formation of Chinese contemporary art. Observing the development of contemporary art in China, artists in general produced a shared powerless and depressive feeling since the beginning of the 90s with the Reform and Opening Up policy and the speedy changes it brought to the society. This is due to artists’ change of identities in China. Artists were dropped from being the spokespersons of societal values during the 80s to the predicament of having to defend the right of their own existences in society. This identity transformation resulted in these artists’ urgent need to truly examine their own inner problems as well as their relationships with the surrounding environments. These artists began to abandon the pursuit of idealism in reality, and began going after a form of self-salvation and self-manifestation. It’s a shift from expressing the concepts of a developing modernized country and its major culture in the society to portraying a perceptual form of one’s own existence.         

Artist Zhang Xiaogang arisen from such environment. He was born in 1958. After graduating from high school in 1976, he then participated in the “Down to the Countryside Movement”. Then he got accepted to the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in 1977, the first year after the resumption of college entrance examination. And Zhang has been actively creating in China since graduation from the academy in 1982. During the 1980s, modernization and leveling Chinese society to its contemporaries were the most urgent tasks. The entire nation was liberated from the state of isolation and restriction, and China was eager to blend into the world, and to join the overall 80s voiced desire with the rest of the world. Chinese society as a whole was in a desire to learn from the West modern culture, as well as in the process of enabling its own culture to become modernized and contemporary. Meanwhile, these artists developed their artistic creations with scholastic mind-set. This motivation to learn from the West was not only displayed in the acceptance of formalism related to the western modern and contemporary art, but also shown in the acceptance and visualization of western philosophical concepts. In such atmosphere, Zhang hungrily absorbs the western artistic thinking and styles, and carries these materials out with artistic expressions. He combines materials from Mysticism in religion with expressionistic painting style, and shapes a kind of spiritual understanding that is beyond realism. Earlier work such as “Interest –bearing Interest of Love”, fully exemplifies a notion of transcendental implication and spiritual intension. At the time, Zhang attempts to maintain a rather secretive communication with the modern day world through this spiritual quest, even though such communication is very private, reserved to oneself and impossible for exchange. These art works no doubt contain traces of western culture and thinking, using art as a kind of very personal and secretive medium for spiritual exchange. This state merely lasted for a few years, for the artist has the chance to visit Europe for the first time in 1993. When he stood in front of the original masterpieces, which he had only been able to admire through reproductions previously, Zhang suddenly realized that he could have never been, and will never become those artists he had studied. He truly felt his own being, his culture as well as existing problems in his life and reality. He recounts on the incident: “What we have been doing with painting seems to be more like reciting school lessons from memory. That means we did not experience life in its most realistic form. Our lives are not artistic, while the west is artistic. For instance, when you want to paint in landscape, you would immediately read up on the Russian landscape artists, and then devour the European landscape artists’ works. And the same reciting method would be applied to portraits. This conceptual transformation occurred in 1993.”

In 1993, the first “Chinese face” appeared in Zhang’s paintings, a “face” that is full of life and hidden in the artist’s own culture. It is the residue of one’s culture after several decades, which firmly secures in one’s presence. To China, life in the past decades under this super fast speed of its development is colorful and surreal. However, this is also the artist’s own personal experience. Zhang realizes he is willing to live more honestly in the reality of his past experiences, and these realities are impossible to ignore and escape. This is self-discovery; meanwhile it’s also a conscious formation of one’s personal culture. In the 80s, Chinese artists through learning went through a process of modernization and leveling with their contemporaries. Different from the 80s, artists in the 90s went through a transformation where through self-awareness, self-discovery and the modeling of one’s personal culture a new content is being inserted into modern or contemporary art. And this new substance could enrich modern or contemporary art. Zhang began the creation of the “Big Family” series through a “Chinese face”. He presents the inner changes of another kind of culture through his observation of family. In his “Big Family” series, we could see how each individual is connected, their existing similarities are being emphasized a lot more than their differences in comparison. The artist depicts the nature of an individual’s inheritance as well as one’s link with history through the use of birthmarks, scars and bloodlines on his subject’s facial appearance. In Zhang’s paintings, a person is not a mere individual; he is an individual within a society or family, who possesses a strong hereditary trait or code from society. Furthermore, the artist’s personal experiences are the foundation for such societal code or hereditary gene. Zhang received the so called orthodox socialistic education. He experienced life in the countryside during the “Down to the Countryside Movement”. His personal experience has always been in the process of transformation, and all along in the transformation of socialistic ideology. Yet when an individual is being rediscovered as oneself, the socialistic ideology and the ambiguity as well as contradiction one feels toward socialism will be on display. And “Big Family” is exactly an expression of such ambiguous feeling. It’s a discovery of one’s inner personal transformation, along with the vague and historical aspects of such transformation. And the notion of being contemporary is the process of the unceasing defining and survey of oneself. In “Big Family”, the figures in these images rarely exhibit individuality, they all seems to have a neutral face. They share just as much similarities as differences. But the socialistic emotion or sentiment demonstrably emerge from the costumes and coloration of these figures. “Big Family” is the birth or start out point of “oneself”, as well as the returning place for “oneself”. “Big Family” uses marriage and blood relation as a natural basis for societal unit, which in general include parents, husband and wife, son and daughter among other relatives. Artist establishes the discovery of oneself on the natural societal unit of family, in attempt to display the social characteristics surrounding oneself through his own personal experience of it. You could believe that this notion of oneself has to do with the practice of a special state of socialism, or it could also be related to the Confucius tradition. One’s warmth, one’s history, one’s social characteristics, one’s belonging are always just a kind of character and attribute of oneself.    

Starting from 2002, Zhang began to enter the portrayal of objects related to people from the previous mere portrayal of people. These objects are all related to recording and reading, for instance, appeared in series such as “In-Out”, “Amnesia and Memory” and “Green Wall”. Paintings of these series portray objects such as ink bottle, light, pen, television set, sofa, notebooks and books. And these art works are investigations of memory and amnesia. At times, the artist would directly record language onto the surface of the painting. This is a kind of memory process, at the same time also a kind of amnesia process. The artist feels amnesia is sometimes more important than memory, for history requires constant revisions. Zhang is absorbed in his own history; he attempts to construct a kind of self-required emotion and culture through history. This is an anew requirement of oneself produced in the rapid development and blend of contemporary cultures. Through intense consciousness of vestige, Zhang amplifies this nature of oneself. He goes from portrayals of members of a family to depictions of mundane household wares, and then to landscapes from memory and experience. In these non-figurative sceneries and objects, human touches can be seen everywhere. All the sceneries have been altered by society, and made functionalized. The depictions of ink bottle, notebook, and desk are a kind of historical modeling with memory. These objects bear the weight of the functions of one’s spirit in the desire to tell, to exchange and to express through reading, writing and letter writing. Yet, these functions would only be applied with a strong sense of spirituality in a society when its communication is underdeveloped. As for the present day society, these functions are without a doubt very precious and human-like. And for Zhang to express through such personal and intimate perspective is just about a warmth in humanity that have not been seen for a long time. Through the portrayals of family to the sceneries surrounding a family, the artist presents a unique modern culture, which associates the intimacy of oneself to history, memory and ideology. It’s precisely due to this culture that we are given the opportunity to establish a new kind of dimensional understanding on the basis of the modern day culture.           

In his photography works, Zhang converts creating itself into a process of leaving behind vestige. Image is a world in which enables individuals to connect, and the action of writing immediately becomes the display of such connection. The artist reconnects reading and form. And through such connection, the heritage of “reading” traditional Chinese ink paintings seems to be once again activated. Zhang’s art, similar to this tradition, exists as a vestige in today’s world.