The Other Shore, New and Improved (essay)

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A new and better version of my Other Shore essay now up at MCLC

Many thanks of Kirk Denton for posting.

 

 

Zhong Biao: “The Other Shore”

Sichuan painter Zhong Biao recently opened his third one-man exhibition in the United States, the first two having occurred in San Francisco at the Frey Norris Gallery in 2007 and 2011. This time his work is on view in New York courtesy of the Klein Sun Gallery (from Feb. 18 to March 19), in operation in its current 8,000-square-foot location in Chelsea since 2013. The gallery, which represents fifteen artists including the emerging ceramicist and multi-media artist Geng Xue 耿雪 as well as more established figures such as Cui Xiuwen 崔岫闻and Liu Bolin 刘勃麟, is one of the most dynamic outfits specializing in contemporary Chinese art in New York, if not the United States. Zhong Biao fits well within this pantheon, while a bit older than most of the others represented, his work continues to be fresh, exuberant, and even visually stunning.

The show’s title, “The Other Shore,” refers in part to geography, the typical configuration of which situates China on one side and “the West” on the other. This arrangement is operative in Zhong’s work even despite its obvious shortcomings. That “the West” is an entity at all, for instance, and in any case that “China” should be its counterweight, are both notions just about as questionable as they are frequently rehearsed. Zhong’s work actually invites such conceptual speciousness, and does so not in the fashion of artistic interrogation or even playfulness; his concepts are starting points from which he launches into something actually completely different. Nonetheless and in terms of geography, Zhong’s arrival after many years in New York is worth noting.

New York is, in one narrow sense, an “Other Shore” to Beijing where his own studio is located. Both are world centers, nodes of reference in our wide, amorphous arena known as the globe. For an artist, such nodes are less anchors than, again, points of departure. In an interview in mid 2015, when asked “Of all the cities in the world, in which would you choose to reside?” Zhong’s answer was:

New York, because the richness of this city brings with it a sense of security, a security that can fully accommodate my anxiety of choosing in the first place. This also illustrates the fact that ultimately, I have no idea what I really want from this life.[1]

Cities like New York are like fuel for the engine driving artistic work, coalescences of source material that become paintings. In practice, this means that Zhong creates paintings from images he himself captures using his own digital camera or collects from any other print or digital media. The raw material of these images is then rendered and collaged by hand in oil paint or acrylic, generating images which traverse space and time while retaining a hyper-realist accuracy. Expanses of blue sky frame hairs on human flesh. Bodies, whether corpulent or lithe, old or young, are arrayed in environments built or natural, all painted in his signature minute detail. The scale of his paintings is also often very large, with his largest work — Mirage (2009) — reaching a width of fifteen meters. This scale enables viewers to travel from the quotidian to the cataclysmic and back again in the space of a single canvas. The scenes Zhong selects and then depicts are not random — they are resonate historical events, financial upheaval, political vicissitudes, scandal. These references serve to situate us as viewers securely in our present circumstances. House of Cards (2015), for instance, brings to mind the 2016 US presidential contest, and Chinese Dream (2014), is a reference to Xi Jinping’s optimistic if often derided slogan.

That said, to focus too narrowly on the thematic, symbolic, or referential elements of Zhong’s work is an interpretative misstep. The geographical or even thematic readings of Zhong’s “Other Shore” are therefore also limited. If there is one major theme which travels throughout his work, it is flight, whether of actual birds or of human figures in various states of levitation. The avian imagery carries with it its own set of symbolisms. Cranes – a symbol of longevity, among others –feature prominently in Zhong’s work, but we also see eagles, and even pigeons. The hawk in Take Off (2015), the Avalokiteshvara figure arising majestically out of Journey to the West, (2015), and the repeated image of a woman in flight seen throughout Velarium (2015), are prominent examples in this exhibition. But this is flight not entirely for its own sake. Zhong’s flight is part of a larger inclination, namely to transcend boundaries and constraining forces of almost any sort, beginning with gravity and moving on from there.

The connection with our present moment is studiously observed, and highly relevant, for therein lies part of the energy of Zhong’s work. But the energies are only observable in juxtaposition to one another. For example, in The Other Shore (2015), Palmyra, a recent casualty of ISIS aggression in Syria, occupies the upper right portion of the canvas. Palmyra is then balanced, upper-left, by the Tiger’s Nest Buddhist Temple (Paro Taktsang) in Bhutan, a seventeenth century structure built upon a mountain peak whose location has been a destination for Buddhist pilgrimage since the eight century. The center of the image, meanwhile, is the Gugenheim Museum in New York, a structure reflecting a different sort of history altogether. The three structures, all artifacts of human endeavor and ingenuity, are profoundly contrasting: one preserved for millennia only to be lost in an instant to seemingly senseless religious strife, another suspended upon a mountain peak against gravity and time, and a third in its ascendency, but with a future whose uncertainty is made clear by its contrast with the others. On closer examination, however, we see that such facile juxtapositions are not entirely what Zhong’s paintings are about. Contrasting elements are designed to reveal not the structures themselves, however meaningful they may appear, but instead underlying forces that generate or at least flow through all the material forms. This goal Zhong explained in an interview with Gao Minglu as far back as 2004:

I am always looking for an underlying or internal order driving events, and moreover attempting to use this order to comprise my own works. No matter if its ancient, modern, local, foreign, direct, indirect, whatever enters the ear, eye, mouth or heart, even if its source is gossip on the street, in the end all that can be perceived comprise the greater environment of our existence.[2]

 

With this decade-old quote in mind, we may move on to what is and what has been “The Other Shore” in Zhong’s work for a long time: time. For Zhong Biao the artist, it is the problem of depicting time that has preoccupied him from a young age. As he recalled during a recent speech given at an exhibition in Beijing, the facts that perception of an event, even one taking place directly in front of us, still occurs milliseconds after the end of the occurrence, or that the light we see coming from a distant planet actually appears to our eyes only thousands of years after the death of the planet, were entirely befuddling to him.[3] If, he continued in this speech, we consider time to be a cake, and we cut the cake in two, with the past on one side, and the future on the other, we find ourselves with nothing but a knife and a handful of emptiness.

It is also this preoccupation with time that drove Zhong, around the year 2006, to include abstract images in his work. The abstract strokes are depictions of the forces that pervade our phenomenal world, ever-present and yet not confined to linear sequence of spatial reality. This abstract element has also evolved notably as well as subtly in his work over the years. In earlier paintings, there were smooth swaths of color, executed with large brushes in a balletic process (Zhong works with an assistant who helps him move large canvases up and down as he quite literally dances and paints in front of them, often with thunderous musical accompaniment). Those abstract forms were akin to the occasional video installations Zhong includes with his exhibitions, where hyperrealist images from paintings appear on a video screen, and then dissolve, with traces of recognizable figures giving way to completely abstract forms before reconstituting as new figures. More recently, the swaths have grown richer, more angular and three-dimensional, giving a sense of layered or parallel realities torn from one another, conjuring memory both recalled and ruptured. Houhai (2015) is an excellent example of the way Zhong now deftly weaves hyperrealism with complete abstraction, allowing him to challenge the limits of each in a single canvas.

In fact, the blend of figural and abstract is broadly emblematic of Zhong’s work, both as a painter and a thinker. His goal is to use painting, among other artistic media, to challenge the limits of space and time which frame both his art and our experience. [4] Not surprisingly, frames themselves are often the subject of his work.[5] Such aesthetic strategies are more than mere meditation on the function of art and our responses to it. Instead, addressing his medium while he works is part of Zhong’s push against our understanding of the phenomenal world itself. His clever juxtapositions of disparate thematic elements which seem to enliven our current affairs, whether by reminders of still resonate events in human history or reference to current preoccupations such as terrorism or environmental distress, are actually distractions from a deeper appreciation of the degree to which we as perceiving subjects are mere conduits for energies which at any particular intersection of materialized space and time manifest as “now.” Zhong’s work, in other words, points to a state of immense surrender, to a condition where our privileging of ourselves in the here and now dissipates in a cosmic flow both ancient and endless. This also generates the essential dissatisfaction with his work, an ongoing frustration with the gaps between perceived world and the true moment (当下) of our being. At least for the moment, this frustration has not translated into a withdrawal from painting itself. May that remain the case for at least a while to come.

Paul Manfredi

Pacific Lutheran University

 

 

 

[1] Bazaar Art and Fashion 芭莎艺术. “Artist Zhong Biao: Without Curiosity, There Is No Inspiration” (艺术家钟飙:不怀揣问号,还想泡灵感?). Interview, 25 Dec., 2015. Web.

[2] Quoted in Ubiquity: Zhong Biao’s Works (无处不在:钟飙作品) 1994-2004 (Shanghai: Artscene China, 2004), np.

[3] Zhong Biao. “Exhibition Closing Remarks,” Zhong Gallery 中画廊, Beijing. 15 Oct., 2015.

[4] Zhong has worked almost entirely in oil or acrylic paint, charcoal and other such material on canvas almost exclusively. The only outlying example is the 2011 Suzhou exhibition “Tailoring Clouds,” is a good example of such attempts. Unlike previous experiments, where video installations provided distillations of images he provides on canvas, “Tailoring Clouds” involved extensive installation of artifacts (burial stones, petrified rocks, miniature structures, 3d printers and more), a cohort of Zhong Biao-esque elements which actually demonstrated wide-ranging intellectual interests quite well.

[5] Zhong is fond of painting frames, which can be either paintings within paintings, or, as in the series from 2009, contrasting abstractions and frames (Invisible Possibilities 无形的可能性) for instance depicts frames within frames, in some cases including viewers observing the “canvases” from within the canvases,西游记 Journey to the West 280x200cm 布面油画、丙烯 Oil and acrylic on canvas 2015 纸牌屋 House of Card 150x120cm 布面油画、丙烯 Oil and acrylic on canvas 2016 天幕 Velarium 100x75cm 布面油画 Oil on canvas 2015 中国梦 Chinese Dream 150x120cm 布面油画、丙烯 Oil and acrylic on canvas 2016 Zhong_Biao_Houhai_Lake_Acrylic_and_Oil_on_Canvas_150x200cm_2015 HouseofCards

The Other Shore: Zhong Biao at Klein Sun Gallery in New York

"The Other Shore" opening

“The Other Shore” opening

20160218_185428_Richtone(HDR) 20160218_201008_Richtone(HDR) mmexport1455815571753

On view now is Zhong Biao’s exhibition “The Other Shore.” In addition, there is an annex featuring recent work collectively titled “Fountain” 泉 of photographer, installation artist 蔡东东 (pictured with gallerist Eli Klein and Zhong above). Below is the essay I wrote for the catalogue.

 

Zhong Biao: “The Other Shore”

Zhong Biao’s exhibition “The Other Shore” refers in part to geography, in which a typical configuration sees China on one side, and the West on the other. In the case of the present exhibition at Klein Sun Gallery, Zhong is making his first appearance in New York, the “Other Shore” being relative to Beijing. In fact, in an interview in mid 2015, when the artist Zhong Biao was asked the following question: “Of all the cities in the world, in which would you choose to reside?” Zhong’s answer was:

New York, because the richness of this city brings with it a sense of security, a security that can fully accommodate my anxiety of choosing in the first place. This also illustrates the fact that ultimately, I have no idea what I really want from this life.[1]

Zhong’s preference for such global urban centers is connected to his process as an artist. These are places where the concentration of human activity is high enough to provide sufficient material for his work. In practice, this means that Zhong Biao’s paintings are created from images he collects from his own digital camera or from other print or digital media. This raw material is then rendered and collaged by hand in oil paint or acrylic, generating images which traverse space and time while retaining a hyper-realist accuracy. Expanses of blue sky frame hairs on human flesh. Bodies, whether corpulent or lithe, old or young, are arrayed in environments built or natural, usually painted in minute detail. The scale of his paintings is often very large, with his largest work Mirage (2009) reaching a width of fifteen meters. This scale enables viewers to travel on foot a path which flows from the quotidian to the cataclysmic and back again in a single image. The scenes Zhong depicts are familiar – historical events, financial upheaval, political vicissitudes, scandal. These references serve to locate us as viewers in our present circumstances. House of Cards (2015), for instance, brings to mind the 2016 US presidential contest, and Chinese Dream (2014), a political slogan recently invented by current leader Xi Jinping, brings us to China’s rather extraordinary rise to prominence on the world stage today, both in its successes and its challenges.

That said, to focus too narrowly on the thematic, symbolic, or articulable elements of Zhong’s work is a misstep. The geographical reading of Zhong’s “Other Shore” is therefore also limited. If there is one major theme which travels throughout his work, it is flight, whether of actual birds or of human figures in various states of levitation. The avian imagery carries with it its own set of symbolisms. Cranes – a symbol of longevity, among others –feature prominently in Zhong’s work, but we also see eagles, and even pigeons. The hawk in Take Off (2015), the Avalokiteshvara figure arising majestically out of Journey to the West, (2015), and the repeated image of a woman in flight seen throughout Velarium (2015), are prominent examples in this exhibition.

Nonetheless, after spending some time pursuing the more recognizable features of Zhong’s repertoire, we notice that he’s not entirely interested in these elements anyway, except, to quote the title of an early 20th-century Chinese poem, as a sort of “organization of distances.” This organization is to a degree topical and connected to our present moment. For example, in The Other Shore (2015), Palmyra, a recent casualty of ISIS aggression in Syria, occupies the upper right portion of the canvas. However, on closer examination, we see that Zhong’s juxtapositions are designed to reveal underlying forces that generate or at least flow through all the material forms. We see in the first place a universal pneuma (or “qi” 气, in Chinese parlance) that propels all matter forward in time. From this space, in other words, we move on to what is really “The Other Shore” in Zhong’s work: time. To be more precise, it is the problem of depicting time that has preoccupied Zhong Biao from a young age. As he recalled during a recent speech given at an exhibition in Beijing, the fact that perception of an event, even one taking place directly in front of us, still occurs milliseconds after the end of the occurrence, or that the light we see coming from a distant planet actually appear to our eyes thousands of years after the death of the planet, were entirely befuddling to him.[2] If, he continued in this speech, we consider time to be a cake, and we cut the cake in two, with the past on one side, and the future on the other, we find ourselves with nothing but a knife and emptiness.

It is also this preoccupation with time that drove Zhong, around the year 2006, to include abstract images in his work. The abstract strokes are depictions of the forces that pervade our phenomenal world, ever-present and yet not confined to linear sequence of spatial reality. This abstract element has also evolved notably as well as subtly in his work over the years. In earlier paintings, there were smooth swaths of color, executed with large brushes in a balletic process (Zhong works with an assistant who helps him move large canvases up and down as he quite literally dances and paints in front of them, often with thunderous musical accompaniment), further punctuated by drips. Those abstract forms were akin to the occasional video installations Zhong includes with his exhibitions, where hyperrealist images from paintings appear on a video screen, and then dissolve, with traces of recognizable figures giving way to completely abstract forms before reconstituting as new figures. More recently, the swaths have grown richer, more angular and three-dimensional, giving a sense of layered or parallel realities torn from one another, conjuring memory both recalled and ruptured. Houhai (2015) is an excellent example of the way Zhong now deftly weaves hyperrealism with complete abstraction, allowing him to challenge the limits of each in a single canvas.

In fact, the blend of figural and abstract is broadly emblematic of Zhong’s work, both as a painter and a thinker. His goal is to use painting to challenge the limits of space and time which frame our experience. Whether or not launching such a challenge fully answers his question as to what he wants to do with his life is an open question. As he works towards an answer, we have plenty to look at in the meantime.

 

 

[1] Bazaar Art and Fashion 芭莎艺术. “Artist Zhong Biao: Without Curiosity, There Is No Inspiration” (艺术家钟飙:不怀揣问号,还想泡灵感?). Interview, 25 Dec., 2015. Web.

[2] Zhong Biao. “Exhibition Closing Remarks,” Zhong Gallery 中画廊, Beijing. 15 Oct., 2015.

Great Conversation at VALA

Had a fine time at VALA last night, talking about art revolutions, Ai Weiwei, and a myriad other. Gaul Culley and I were “headliners,” but the real stars are the VALA community, so ably led by Jessica Lambert:

http://www.valaeastside.org/thoughts-from-co-founder-jessica-lambert

This event part of current exhibition, about which more here:

 

Along with some photos of the event itself:

 

Gaul_Paul_Discussion Gaul Paul_Manfredi VALA_Art_Center VALA_Revolution VALA_Transformation

Ai Weiwei Back in Action at 798

entryAiWeiwei

 

As promised in a previous post, a few words about the Ai Weiwei exhibit I happened upon while visiting 798 last month. Over the years, I have in various places and ways expressed reservations with Ai’s work, and more particularly, his reception in Western media. This exhibition, though, marks a kind of turning point in my appreciation of him, at least as an artist in China. I am reminded that he is in factstill full-voiced, relevant, powerful, and really worth the hype in many ways.

Ok, it seems important to mention that this is Ai’s first solo exhibition in China since he was censored all that many years ago (since 2008, to be precise). This is important because, in the political history which will come to dominate understandings of Ai in the coming years,  Ai’s “return” to the Chinese domestic art scene signals either an escalation in the sometimes downright hostile tit for tat between artist and political authority, or perhaps a mollifying pivot to a kinder, more gentler relationship between Ai and his minders. I actually hope for the latter, if only because it has the greater potential to bring to view the type of work currently on exhibit at Gallerie Continua and Tang Contemporary Art Center.

For those not already aware, the exhibition is a reconstruction of an ancient  (400-year old) dwelling located in Jiangxi that was slated for demolition by Chinese authorities. Here’s what it looked like from a photograph displayed in the exhibition:

 

Originalscene

 

Instead of such a fate, Ai has had a portion of the structure disassembled and then reassembled in two spaces, which are adjacently situated Beijing’s 798 arts district. I toured the exhibit, albeit too quickly, in the company of Sichuan artist Zhong Biao, whose impressions were in and of themselves interesting to record. What follows, though, is largely my take.

The colors.

The work is mammoth and impressive for sheer size and scale (and complexity). I’ll begin, though, with a small observation: the way that Ai paints some material objects found on site in the village in Jiangxi. We’ve seen this strategy many times in Ai’s work, most famously the ancient urns and other vessels which he similarly painted, and in some cases branded with marks of global capitalism (Coca-cola, for instance).  The idea was clear enough to me in the past, and as an abstract notion — that crude paint on old and therefore venerated objects brings about meditation on value of all material objects in our midst — it made sense enough. But seeing is believing in this case. Here I am reduced to my own poor photography, which is not enough to convey just how vapid, yet vibrant, and saccharine to the point of being painful these colors really are.

colors1 colors2

 

The objects are painted ornamental elements of the original structure, brought to our view in a dedicated space of the gallery again as if to pose the question of viewing itself, ornamentation emanating from ornaments defiled and in their defilement emanating yet again. The effect is riveting, something like a car accident one views from the vantage point of a passing car. I both couldn’t bear to look, and couldn’t pull myself away.

The footings.

The colored objects (and also ladder, which I won’t get into here) are truly but a minor element in the vast work that, and here’s the major point, encompasses two full galleries. This is an important point because few artists in China living today could not only lock up two galleries for the purpose of exhibition, but also force cooperation between the galleries that required, beyond logistics of timing, etc, actually boring holes right through their walls! The reconstruction of the ancient dwelling was not done, in other words, in one gallery, but in two, and this required building supports across the two (or is that three?) structures, an architectural wonder further accentuated by the video projections of the “other” galleries constantly in view. Again, here Ai deftly captures long-standing questions of exhibition, space and viewership. We are complicit in uncomfortable ways, captured by cameras so we have a constant sense of watching and being watched in the simultaneously authentic and yet entirely artificial space.

What captured all this most powerfully for me was the single footing, separate from the other (I presume) original pieces of support because instead of stone it is actually made of glass:

crystalfooting

 

and a close up:

crystalfooting2

 

Apart from the obvious meditation on functionality and aesthetics of the built environment that such a choice occasions, Ai includes within the footing a note composed by his six-year-old son which reads:

xinpingerhao

 

心平而好, which literally could be rendered “with a peaceful heart all is well” but which might further be interpreted to say: F*** You! (to use a favorite Ai Weiwei-ism). Ai’s heart is not so peaceful, and yet he quietly and painstakingly assembles this massive work, supports it beautifully on an impossible sentiment encased in glass. I half wondered if at any moment the entire structure (and the two galleries with it) might not collapse at this very point. Fortunately that did not come to pass.

What the exhibition demonstrates for me is that Ai is a highly competent artist whose “issues” may not be as universal as worshipping media outlets would have us believe, but at least speak effectively to some core issues operative in China’s “rise”, for lack of a better word. In other words, if we must have celebrity artists such as this, I guess Ai Weiwei is a pretty good choice.

Zhong Biao “Splitting Time”



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Here is a 5 minute video of Zhong Biao speaking at the end of the “Splitting Time” (切开时间) exhibition. The exhibition was held at the Zhong Gallery (中画廊) in Beijing. It was a small-scale operation (only nine paintings), but a lively (if a bit noisy) crowd and lots of good wine.

Here we get a good sense of Zhong’s characteristic painting philosophy, something that involves the very largest philosophical issues (space and time) as an integral part of his process. The sound, visual quality and subtitles are all a bit rough, but at least an outline of the essential ideas emerges.

 

 

 

798 Alive and Well

798Dragon

Can’t say how many times over the years I have encountered the idea, while traveling in China and more particularly Beijing and more particularly still the Northeast district (Chaoyang), that the 798 arts zone is “dead.” Its been dead since shortly after its birth in 2001, a pronouncement made famously by one of its progenitors (I’ll resist the word “father”), Huang Rui. Huang was early on disgusted with the commercial/propaganda vehicle that the area quickly became once the Chinese government changed its original plan-to demolish the entire factory (built, for those unaware, in the 1950s by Chinese -East-German joint venture). Whatever Beijing authorities had planned at the time, no doubt it was not what turned out to be the most lucrative thing imaginable– a free, independent, international/global center for the production, exhibition and appreciation of contemporary art, both Chinese and non-Chinese.

The word “independent” here, though, is what caused problems in the views of Huang and others. Once the Chinese government got involved, there was immediately a chilling effect on the scope and of course content of the art created and exhibited. Meantime, and in curious lock-step with the increased surveillance and hence control of the artistic “message,” the commercial value of space in the entire 798 area rose so rapidly that most artists were priced out. Thus, it mattered little whether 798 was doomed for economic or political reasons, it was still doomed.

Or at least, such is the narrative. I’m certainly not going to propose that either one of those interferences with the development of an arts district is not in effect in the case of 798, but I still find, year after year, that visiting the zone remains a rewarding even impressive experience, where art of significant quality is on display in a density and variety that few places in the world (I know that’s a big claim–would love to be challenged on this point) can rival.

Here, then, a few rather pathetic shots from my own  camera with a bit of commentary.

Outside

the first thing I like to observe at 798 is its edge. I love the ay the art and building come to an abrupt halt, here on the northwest corner. The installation of traffic mirrors to aid in safety a good example of something you won’t find often in Beijing, despite the fact that quote a few places could use them. The fringe of the above ground heating system, still wrapped in insulation, and the remains of whatever structural gate previously bordered the space when it was a factory district in the 1950s.

 

798Edge2

 

 

 

Here the makings of a typically elaborate exhibition, this one in the courtyard beside PACE Gallery, Beijing. Not a great deal to be discerned at this stage of installation, but typically arresting image of an airplane wing jetting up from underground.

 

798Wings

 

798 Poeisis

This is one of the most interesting elements of 798 to me– the people who are constantly engaged in the incessant building, demolition and rebuilding that an arts district of this scale requires. I’ve often thought that if anyone really needed to obtain a thorough picture of what this place is they should contact whatever outfit sends workers in to actually make what we see visible. And then have a few sit-downs with the workers. One of these days I’ll find a way to do this.

 

798Workers1 798Workers2

 

the Inside:

Too much to report on this at once. Here just a few shots from a Fang Lijun exhibition, which included both oil paintings and woodblock prints, demonstrating that his work is still current and suggestive. going on while I was there. More impressive still was the Ai Weiwei installation I saw, but I’ll write about that separately.

FLJ1 FLJ2 FLJ3