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Experimentation in Contemporary art in China: Xu Bing and Zhang Xiaogang

Zhang Xiaogang | JM Art Management
Zhang Xiaogang

Investigating the role of experimentation in the creation and emergence of contemporary art from China in the latter quarter of the 20th century, I am focusing on two prominent artists of this period. Xu Bing and Zhang Xiaogang come from different parts of China. One is an academic and diaspora artist. The other is a contemplative introvert; at a time when their contemporaries represented the very forefront of a generation, both faced profound desperation with their own peers and environmental climates. In developing their ability to pierce the controlling veil of a waning political regime in China, both these artists have developed their own particular ‘code’ within their forms of visual artistry that was able to implement western contemporary ideas in communicating their sentiments to the broader global Contemporary Art world. Enveloped in an inherently experimental milieu, both Zhang Xiaogang and Xu Bing have refined the level of experimentation in their practice to become leading influencers in the way ‘the contemporary’ from China has been redefined in the eyes and consciousness of the West while contributing both directly and indirectly to the direction of its continuing trajectory within the Chinese borders.

In the folds of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a ‘decade of chaos’ from the mid-60s to the mid-70s would set the backdrop for a generation of artists growing up and living in a socio-political environment that defied tradition and personal voice. For artists/curators such as Hou Hanru, the 1980s meant a sense of liberation:

... a real discovery of freedom, the discovery of the world, the discovery of lots of things. The art scene itself is automatically related to this kind of tendency, this wave of social transformation.

Hou speaks of the situation then initiated from 1979 by the Stars group (see fig. 1) to the 1985 New wave Movement, to the landmark 1989 exhibition China/Avant-Garde that anticipated major change for all. Hugely dramatic and radical to the art industry, the first several years after the Government’s Open-Door Policy was a time: “...much more experimental than today, and much more naïve as well...”. He states a lot of people were rediscovering classical traditions, Renaissance art to pre-Soviet art, becoming a part of the academic education, and replacing the Soviet model of socialist realism. During the period leading up to the emergence of the ’85 Movement, the nature and response of artists in China was paralleled by a slow spread of cultural consciousness throughout the nation. Much of the new art was political, addressing Mao’s ideology in the form of political art and social critique on authoritarian oppression. This allowed subcultures to absorb influences, re-invent, and self-identify and would prove crucial to the creative incubation and development of Artists in a rapidly-changing arts ecology.

Protest of the Stars group, 1979, Beijing | JM Art Management
Protest of the Stars group, 1979, Beijing

As the proliferation of literature was translated and consumed voraciously by the new generation of artists, a proliferation of new waves in the cultural sector helped initiate the ‘new avant-garde mentality’. It is within this time frame that repatriation of creativity was developed and in the case of Zhang Xiaogang and Xu Bing a forced ‘awakening’ of sorts. This ultimately led to their individual departures from the mainstream and of their peers and the instigation of a drastic shift of cultural environments. For Xu Bing, it was after the launch of his most famous work ‘A Book From The Sky’ (1988), and under its heavy criticism from art institutions and academia, that he left the country to teach abroad in the United States. Zhang Xiaogang meanwhile took instead the ‘inward-facing’, a humanistic stance of ‘individual freedom’, characteristic of the ‘Current of Life’ painters, and focussed away from the public realm and into the personalized life with his art. This paper will take a sharp glimpse into the habits, lifestyles, and techniques of each of these two artists to help define their invaluable contribution toward the emergence of Contemporary art from China while helping to define the experimental nature of their practice.

... Sometimes remembrance feels more like questioning than introspection.
- Zhang Xiaogang

Zhang Xiaogang | JM Art Management
Zhang Xiaogang Eternal Love, 1988

Earlier work from Zhang Xiaogang Eternal Love (1988) (see fig. 2), depicts himself and his new wife and all the emotions of the new partnership while having kept the candid realism and gaunt realities of everyday life. While celebrating the rituals of tradition and domestic ‘ideals’, the work depicts a surrounding and tone of decrepitude and space of sparsity; an arid landscape, and little protection from the elements for himself and his family. Also depicted in the picture are exposed to burial sites, a caged animal in the background, and a general sense of uncertainty on peoples’ faces. This work of Zhang seems to be addressing sociological issues that introduce idealism and ‘utopia’, yet embedded in a restrained existence defined by an understanding of mortality, not of prospective fortune. Not particularly ‘dark’, nor representing bliss, the work portrays a stark reality that both documents his life condition while presenting the viewer with a dialog on a sort of satisfied acceptance. It is apparent from this work that Zhang Xiaogang is a painter that reflects on life in a detached, melancholic, and addressing manner. The blank looks of the people staring directly into the viewer’s eye is a look that is lost, nostalgic and melancholic; a look that is in search of clear communication, and yet floating in dismay and indifference.

This was painted at a time just before the 1989 protests and shutdown in Beijing and is also clearly before Zhang had established what was to be his own individual painting style. His works and markings in this painting show something of his respect for the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, but also for the landscape and selected symbolism of the European painters & the surrealists, yet with his own awkward interpretation of situations and beings. Painted in the same year he was married, the work represents a conflict of love and death, and anxiety through contemplation, and features his characteristic eyes facing out at the viewer. The mixture of uncertain styles speaks of an effort at happiness and joy with this tremor of trepidation ... a sentiment perhaps induced by commitment at an otherwise uncertain period, both within society as well as within the artist’s own creative development. Is this his style? How can such a work truly represent the world of a China-based artist? The characters do not appear to be Chinese per sé, nor do the accouterments. The influences are apparent, and yet the message is shadowed by self-doubt. In the first panel (left) Zhang paints his own figure in grey hidden behind the married couple – a curious self-positioning in a triptych ode to this union in life, and yet his self-analysis is indicative of his intuitive investigative instinct. Looking at the chronology of his works it becomes apparent that Zhang was leaving his past behind – one of the shadows and brooding, and a period of martyred contemplation and despair:

I came to believe that one can only transcend death and self through religious love and martyrdom. Going back to nature and the mind at least could cleanse one’s soul.
– Zhang Xiaogang
Zhang Xiaogang | JM Art Management
Zhang Xiaogang

Earlier work is the ‘Ghost’ series by Zhang (including The Ghost Between Black and White works), where his mental health issues were clearly evidenced in the pictorial narrative of the work. Produced in 1984 when he was forced into isolation due to an illness related to alcoholism, series of sketches of pencil on paper relay ghosts of his mind appearing from his bedsheets, between fellow patients at the hospital and seeping into his own physical space. The works can be seen as disturbed with a strong reference to death and linked to depression (see figs. 3 & 4). In this respect, however, they also illustrate the extent to which Zhang maintains a truth in his creative ethos. His experiments at this time were motivated by feelings of isolation and a desperate search for meaning, looking deeply into the styles of painting from the European modern art painters in particular Picasso’s blue period and the works of Paul Klee. The feeling of disconnection comes through with these works; his indulgence in working with the folds of the bedsheet emphasizing the disappearance of the body, or a taking over of the self.

In early 1985, after completing the ‘Ghost’ series, I felt that I’d completely sunk into a bottomless ‘individualist’ abyss. Feelings of repression and absurdity exhausted me. I felt exasperated with the meaning and value of the human being and with emotional relations... I spent years drifting and wandering, trying to search for the true meaning of life ...
- Zhang Xiaogang

With the Cultural Revolution as a backdrop to his development, his paintings reflect a considered sense of resolve on multiple levels of personal and socio-political contexts. Having spent much of his time trying to self-identify through his art, Zhang had experimented with a European-style approach in composition and technique at an early stage to re-animate the influences of his foreign idols. His search sent him to Europe where he visited the Van Gogh Museum to connect with his inspirations. After viewing the show, Zhang felt destroyed, realizing that in truth he had very little in common at all with the Dutch painter. The degree of effect over this event is not only endearing but quite sad. It emphasizes Zhang’s naivety towards the universality in thinking between artists and denotes his desperation in having to justify a stylistic agenda in his artwork. His visit to Documenta in Kassel during the same trip leads him to purvey the international contemporary art scene in a conscious effort to locate his own ‘positioning’ in that broader picture. His inability to achieve that task was equally distressing, though in the years to follow these events would prove important motivators to self-identifying as a ‘Chinese artist in China’.

The 1990s brought a slew of Chinese painters to the fore in the art world who were attuned to Western contemporary art practices. As such, innovative self representations through a certain style and nuance in portraiture came to the surface. Derived from the various movements of slick cynicism, a dialogue was developed that began to engage with a global art world demographic. The intention to understand the contemporary art world outside of China was a conscious effort, and gained ground in some cases via reworking ‘the portrait’ and ‘the face’. In doing so they began to redefine and polish the art of cultural identity for the larger art market.

Zhang Xiaogang | JM Art Management
Zhang Xiaogang

Among this group, Fang Lijun’s disorientated young men (Untitled, 1995), Yue Minjun’s maniacal, pink-skinned, squinty-eyed men (Untitled series 1991-95), and Geng Jianyi’s hysterical laughing heads (from The Second Situation, 1987), demonstrate the outbreak of Cynical Realism within the portrait - ultimately ridiculing the socio-political affliction on China via a set of subversive tones14 (see figs. 5, 6, 7). The messages would engage in a silent yet hysterical dialogue with the long-lasting brand of socialist realism and repression imposed on the populous. In some the sentiments are of dismay and indifference; of a culture who “... had lost their ambition, their idealism and their passions ... (and were) disillusioned with the world as a result ...”. In all cases, the works would tap into a sentiment at the core of the creative consciousness of China, and in their own coded way offer a brash critique of the absurdities of their country. While China’s greatest critics would target many of the cynical realism painters, Zhang Xiaogang was no exception.

Zhang Xiaogang | JM Art Management
Zhang Xiaognag, Father and Daughter

The Bloodlines series is one of the first paintings from China that I, as a Western-educated individual living and studying fine art in Vienna, Austria, found thoroughly beautiful and enhancing. It also made me curious. Is there such a polished sense of self-representation in works of contemporary art coming from the East? The languid facial expressions and of course the aura of purity and cleanliness that seems to negate latitudes of gender and age in all of the characters in the frame is haunting. Mostly representing members of young families, the comment on a maintained, regimented alliance to the political regime, and the individual’s sense of ‘numbness’ to this mode of living is a well-communicated message. The feint, fragile features, a semi- potential smile, and yet not, the characters are ones that are resigned to the framework of their lives and what society offers them. The comment of course is conveyed more in the symbols that dress these portrait paintings: the red thread and main theme of the paintings nodding at the unerasable connection between kin that is ever-more threatened under the imposed socio-political conditions. The celebration of a baby boy, acknowledging the expected satisfaction at the result of set sociological ‘ideals’ (see fig. 9). Are these parents truly pleased in accord with the dictates of society? Are they not the model citizens as such? Or is there a cadence, a cynicism, within the super-light smirks that hint toward the potential sarcasm at this celebration; potential nonchalance and asserted indifference? Such standards and desires may just belong to a displaced culture that was now dissipating exponentially with ever-increasing exposure to the ways of the West. It is via such works of art that the bubbling sentiments of disdain toward the regimentation of a rapidly aging regime must have been looking for a voice or a medium to send a message to the greater public consciousness. To share such thoughts, even in the ‘90s, was a muted yet irresistible act; quietly encoded in dialogue with the global ‘contemporary’, and not altogether detectable by said regimes.

Zhang Xiaogang | JM Art Management
Zhang Xiaogang Bloodline: Big Family No.2, 1995 Bloodline: Big Family No.2, 1995

The Bloodline series of paintings by Zhang Xiaogang was produced at a crucial time in the development of contemporary art movements in China and its growing awareness of the parallel Western art world. 1995, the year of production of the initial series, was still in the simmering aftermath of the 1989 events in Tiananmen, Beijing. The motive to refine a sentiment within works of art, with the intent to join the international discourse and without being censored, was becoming quietly popularised. Groups such as the ’85 Movement (1978-1998) represented a whole collection of small groups who searched for freedom and knowledge from abroad toward a pursuit of the ‘true mankind’. Helping to reformulate the artistic direction toward ‘modern utopianism’ and indeed ‘humanism’ within a newly founded universality in their practice, many of the artists from this movement would become attuned to directing their techniques in the works of art toward voice and ambition, where domestic recognition alone was no longer sufficient.

The role of traditional Chinese portraiture came to play an important role in the technique of Zhang Xiaogang’s paintings. Upon discovering old portrait photographs of his family, the art of portraiture came to have a significant impact on Zhang’s aesthetic style. A sense of beauty and an angelic aesthetic began to impact his creative approach. Many of the traditional portraits – among the gentry especially – were composed around a stringent structural presentation form, with sensibilities of self-representation not familiar in the West. According to a paper The Enigma of Face on Zhang Xiaogang’s Portraits, ancestor portraits often display "... a hyper-realistic rendering of the physiognomic features required to ensure that the sacrifice given will reach the right person.” In other words, the tradition of portraiture in China carried a degree of importance with those involved being extremely consequential as to the portrait’s production, presentation, and its audience. And so, the way the portrait is composed was of utmost importance. More poignantly the idea of the portrait in traditional Chinese culture refers not, as in the West, to the self as much as to personal identity in the context of social relations. This focusses on the recognition of role, with social standing, rank, an appointed position, etc. being of primary importance above and beyond any sense of personal identification.

Zhang Xiaogang | JM Art Management
Portrait of Yinti, Prince Xun (1688-1755), and Wife mid-18th century Qing dynasty. Ink and color on silk

When Zhang Xiaogang was growing up developing his painting style, the political climate in China maintained no hierarchy other than the political regime and the masses; there was no celebration of tradition, and all systems of ancient empirical social standing had been effectively erased from society. In adopting a visual reference to the ancient photographs and styles that he had discovered in his family home, Zhang’s paintings began to adopt the stiff neutral-expressions of old traditional portraiture, and yet with entirely new meaning. He had come to apply a conceptual approach in portraiture – the stoic posturing, and calm distant expressions of the eye – as displaced sociological comment. The one significant difference between the traditional and the contemporary is that these paintings of Zhang’s present a statement embodying trauma and suppression, in place of social standing and pride. The comparison of the human forms portrayed as ‘armatures’ for display is comical and also truthful; forms that remain staunch in the up-keeping of values, not by choice but by duty. The thread brings the overall theme together: a value system of genetic heritage almost lost, or put into jeopardy, through the Mao- era ideologies.

Harkens back to Cultural revolution – a family portrait with the thin bloodline linking all the figures, referring to the tradition of ancestor worship and filial piety - very Confucian - on (the) other hand was commenting on cult worship of Mao where young families (were) asked to denounce their elders. parents & grandparents, so this bloodline filial piety was severed for allegiance to the state and allegiance to Mao.
– Dr. Melissa Chiu

The impact of cultural change, combined with the intellectual exposure to Western thought after the revolution, was a key stimulus for the avant-garde and conceptual artists in China to begin producing works that communicated meaning in a universal language, and free of antiquated ideologies. Filtering of the visual language to reach the desired audiences while circumventing the authoritarian regime meant the desired access for their works of art. These coded methodologies were in effect molded by the moving on from a period of suppression by China, and its all-encompassing shifting socio-political landscape.

The inward-looking and introspective methodology were not unique in China at the time amongst the avant-garde artists, nor was the reference to ancient philosophies and their integration into art-making. Dao and Chan Buddhism are ideas used by the Chinese conceptualists as the basis for contemporary art approaches. Fundamentally these include non-being and nothingness (based on traditional Daoist philosophy), equating through a process to feelings about contemporary reality. Gao Minglu notes that the ‘Qigong’, and cultivation of the Dao, attributes to what was labeled as ‘incessant’ behavior in social contexts. Quoting Xu Bing, he writes:

One of my painter friends told me about a ‘crazy’ guy in his home village, who always went out to collect waste paper at a certain hour, washing these papers in a river, carefully mounting them piece by piece, and then storing them under his bed after they had become dry and flat. I thought a long time about this person’s behavior. Finally, I realized that it was a kind of Qigong – a kind of cultivation of the Dao... a very powerful kind of Qigong ... an Eastern way of achieving knowledge – obtaining sudden enlightenment and correspondence with Nature by endlessly experiencing a fixed point.
- Xu Bing

In a project titled Ghost Pounding On The Wall (1990), Xu Bing organized a team to work in the mountainous rural area near Beijing to get impressions from the Great Wall on paper. Within the printed work’s final presentation, the question of human endeavor, hopelessness, and futility toward his work is an intentional statement about the current significance of the subject matter itself. The Wall had become a

symbol targeted by the avant-garde art movement in China; waning symbolism of former glory. Eventually exhibited at the University of Wisconsin in 1991 and more recently in Taipei (see fig. 11), the effort put into the work is said to have imposed a “psychological and physical space similar to the space of the Great Wall itself”. Its grandiose presentation in this installation is theatrical to emphasize these considerations and juxtapose its dissipating stability and true significance to elements of nature.

Zhang Xiaogang | JM Art Management
Ghosts Pounding the Wall, 1990–91. Installation view in “Xu Bing: A Retrospective” at Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 2014

While adopting certain philosophies in his work, Xu Bing does not draw attention to the roots of inspiration in his methodology, rather he simply applies these methodologies toward painstaking and perfectly detailed processes. The result prompts audiences to question the work as much as the effort it took to produce it. He indulges himself as an Artist in philosophies and thoughts true to his heritage; then deconstructs his personal sentiments and arrives at his statement through careful observation. His methodology involves endearing himself to a given location relevant to the project, allowing a first-person account of the subject matter before identifying aspects that he feels can be addressed with his particular voice. The process could be said to be thoughtful and ‘aware’, often with a result that portrays the meditative approach used in its concept and execution.

Zhang Xiaogang | JM Art Management
A Book From The Sky (detail), 1991, Woodblock hand-printed on handmade Chinese paper, wooden case. Installation view, Eslite Gallery, Taipei

With Xu Bing’s most famous work A Book From The Sky, Tianshu (1987-1991) (see figs. 12 & 13), the coded language is clearly a mammoth process of developing an entirely distorted language of non-sense. At this early stage of his career, this language was inspired less by the rational, pragmatic influence from the spiritual, and more from the indirect effects of socio-political activities of the time. An all-encompassing condition, it was difficult to evade what Xu Bing would refer to as ‘cultural fever’. Of the cultural revolution period (’66-’77), he comments:

... people were starved for culture and consumed everything available. During this time, I read so much and participated in so many cultural activities that my mind was in a state of chaos. My psyche had been clogged by all sorts of random things. I felt uncomfortable, like a person suffering from starvation who had just gorged himself. It was at that point that I considered creating a book that would clean out those feelings.

Xu Bing claims that the work is ‘empty’ - that his years of work, in the end, presents ‘nothing’. In retrospect, he had focused so intently on impressing on people the legitimacy of the work, while simultaneously “extracting any cohesive content from the work completed”. This demonstrates blind desperation in his methodology. However, it is in his endeavors to enunciate a legitimation of the work that he has achieved a thorough deconstruction of the medium into something of a new form. Achieved through meticulousness in his process, Xu ensured that he refines all the traditional skills needed to complete the task himself, and portray each self- formulated character in Song dynasty script form - a way to avoid personal expression or individual emotion within the characters themselves.

Zhang Xiaogang | JM Art Management
Book from the Sky, 1987–91, Installation view at Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas

Despite the extensive effort in devising this fictitious vocabulary, in the end, it’s not the linguistic inventions that define the work’s impact but the nature of the grand installation. In every iteration until the present day, the work is set in a grandiose temple-like setting with swooping sheets and scrolls and traditionally-bound bookwork. The conceptual approach of deconstructing via referencing traditional forms is part of the message, though the intention is not to disrespect the techniques adopted. Xu Bing’s conscious effort to erase the ‘interior content’ from the workplace the responsibility of defining a valid interpretation onto the viewer. As the language is illegible even by Chinese speakers, this interpretation is a universal challenge with little bias. This is an intrinsic part of Xu Bing’s practice and his implementation of conceptual art methodologies, to have his message as one that is ultimately addressed to a universal audience despite the various tools used to communicate that message.

Despite the rejection of the work upon its initial exhibition in China, it has stood the test that time offers largely due to the Artist’s processes and approach. To presume one can pre-meditate such an ambitious endeavor – the deconstruction of a nation’s written communicative medium – would be naïve, and yet what this work A Book From The Sky, Tianshu has done is to present to the public option asides from the ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ way. Presented is a neutralization of the given system of the written word and in doing so, the administrative (i.e. political) control that is dictated via that language – linguistic control. Xu’s process was motivated by a direct and deep- searching reaction to the political conditions and has thus returned his message to that sociological pool. Far more than an experiment, it unseated the minds and thoughts of those across a wide spectrum and has ultimately made a profound historical impact.

Xu Bing and Zhang Xiaogang are today two of China’s most revered artists and are amongst the global contemporary art markets’ most valued makers. Zhang has brought the essence of portrait making into a new century while finding a niche that implements strong traits from the West, into his own self-identification as a Chinese artist – ultimately a profoundly soothing and victorious place of arrival for one that has lived such tortured travels. Xu Bing has likewise seen the signs of change, and rather than despair or revolt has traveled to the deep and intellectual core of that phenomena. He has returned with an answer that the very society that produced it was not quite ready for and has continued to work using this methodology and dialogue that speaks well beyond any given language. Our understanding of the contemporary from China will continue to grow as the nation’s identification keeps re-inventing and refining itself on the open field. It's thanks to several Artists along the way that have helped direct that path, and continue to bridge a gap of understanding and universality in their practice.

Written by Salazar Quas


JM Art Management


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