Zhong Biao’s second coming

Zhong Biao had his second opening at the newly situated Frey Norris Gallery in San Francisco this weekend.  The exhibition was titled “Reflections on Air” (selected by the gallery) in English and 漂 in Chinese.  The distance between these two effortlessly (as ever) spanned by Zhong’s prodigious generosity, answering questions, chatting up one and all at the post-opening party, and generally making himself popular. Of course, his longtime translator Shi Shi and others, myself included, facilitated conversation with those who did not know Chinese.  In such circumstances, though, I rather feel Zhong could handle the matter on his own.  Not because he speaks English (he does not), but because he’s so infectious in his enthusiasm that it almost doesn’t matter.

This one (“Blank Pages”), was clearly the major work of the 10 or so on display.  Situated rather unfortunately behind the service counter (though this did make lingering over the painting while filling one’s wine glass a convenience), it drew the most attention and conversation.

Blank Pages

I found myself, nonetheless, drawn to the image “Leisure”


Though rather inscrutably titled, I find the treatment of light in this painting to be a significant departure for Zhong Biao, an almost Monet-type obscurity to the figures, something recapitulated in the 19th-century aesthetic of the train station itself.  This is in Zhong’s case characteristic time bending (or collapsing), but it is so without, ironically, much pretense to innovation.  Modernity coming home, late at night and with few to greet it, and calling it a century.


5 thoughts on “Zhong Biao’s second coming

  1. paulmanfredi says:

    Indeed, the Tibetan burial motif is a strong element of the painting, and thanks to Erik for bringing it to our attention. Moreover, 来福’s noticing of the black lines, seems to be quite necessary to the analysis of this painting. I find them, broadly speaking, to be Zhong Biao’s connection to the current focus (in contemporary Chinese art) on traditional ink painting. He demonstrates that he too is adept, even if not a “practitioner,” precisely.

    Regardless, the effect of the dense, black strokes on the canvas is powerful, and worth contemplating. The notion that they “belong in the book” is in a word, delightful.

    Also worth contemplating, of course, is the image of the “child,” as 来福 observes. Here are clearly two children, one slightly larger than the other, but otherwise not distinct (I don’t see the “sweeping away” of the vulture). Its perhaps worthy of note that we see them both from above–what is this perspective, exactly? And of “symbolic order,” is the larger child marred by abstraction (the younger blissfully intact, in some sense)? The image does certainly lend itself to such a reading. So, let us read….

  2. 来福 says:

    Excellent contribution, I forgot about the sky burials – and admit my total ignorance of “Vulture Peak”. Regardless of Zhong’s intended connections, we do have license to forgo my automatic/cultural reading of vulture as a morbid creature. If we were to go with the Sky Burial reference, then the vulture becomes a conduit/vehicle for rebirth – which enables us to move past the dead-end that the previous reading brought us to.

    And along my presently loosey-goosey lines of thought, we might then want to note that there are two instances of the child, the first being beneath the abstraction, and the second above (in two senses), along with the vulture. And although I do not recall any previous depiction of agency over abstraction in Zhong’s work, one could look at the vulture as perhaps brushing away this chaos.

    The black stokes in the painting both contrast with, and resemble, the abstraction – and mimic perhaps feathers from the vulture’s flapping. If this is a valid interpretation, then we should also note that one of the black strokes lies beneath the “first” child – suggestive of a cyclical-ness ( which is incidentally congruent with possible rebirth enabled by the vulture). And need I say that the strokes resemble brush-strokes that “would” have been in the blank pages?

    That the pages are the only the only part of the painting that is completely blank, I find interesting – mostly because of their Other’ed dimension: the only piece of the painting (in the confines of this reading) that does not belong to the child’s being, and implicit of the larger “symbolic order”, to utilize Lacan, that the child resides in…

    I will let that settle for a while…

  3. Erik H says:

    In a Buddhist context, the image of the vulture could evoke several things: First, it could point to the well-known Tibetan practice of sky burial, the ritual butchering of the dead at specific locales in order to feed vultures that gather there. Metonymically, the bird can thus represent death (we don’t need to point to the Tibetan practice to make this connection), and thus saṃsāra.

    Secondly, the vulture could lead the more knowledgeable viewer to think of Gṛdhrakūṭa-parvata, or “Vulture Peak” 靈鷲山, the historical location where the Buddha was said to have preached several of the more important Mahāyāna sūtras. Zhong could perhaps be using the image of the vulture to illustrates these words of the Buddha (themselves a discourse on 空) as they spill forth from the page.

    Finally, and more obscurely, Zhong could be gesturing toward the Buddhist avadāna literature, which contains heroic parables about compassion and self-control. These stories often revolve around the deeds of animal protagonists (and antagonists).

    Or, he may have had none of these associations in mind.

  4. paulmanfredi says:

    Agreed. interpretations far from incompatible.

    But I also agree you’re very much onto something with the implications of a vulture. Call that one direction. The other direction, which you are already alluding to, concerns Chinese philosophy. Instead of an “alternative” view of meditation, this may just be a view of mediation. As such, the “blank” is clearly 空. Indeed, the canvas is arranged, also as you suggest, with 虚 实 dichotomy in “mind.” The blankness interrupted by an explosion of abstract material, an explosion which also suggests 悟 , unless of course we consider the vulture….back to square one.
    (and thanks for posting comment, by the way)

  5. 来福 says:

    With regards to “Blank Pages”, I still insist that the abstract chaos is representative of the depicted child’s inner thoughts. I will grant that Zhong does not explicitly distinguish between the internal (psychological) and external world – rather, as we said, regards them as “one” – but I believe this specific painting does just that.

    Visually speaking, the child is the focus of this piece, and what we see of him besides his robe is his head – which brings into question what is going inside. Equally so, the fact that he is reading “blank pages” leads one to wonder what precisely is going on.

    The first idea, given that he is a young buddhist monk reading nothing (at least in the way of words), is meditation. But the abstraction literally disrupts the meditative quality of the piece a.) in that it cuts across the child’s head and b.) through its juxtaposition with other visuals in the piece. It is tumultuous and perhaps even violent.

    I maintain that this is a re-assessment of what it means to “meditate”. In spite of this internal chaos, the color of the child’s robe repeats that of the vulture, implying sameness. Daoism has positioned the animal kingdom as closer to the “Dao” – effortless and mindless – and that humanity (owing to its psychological tumult) is quite removed.

    The child is like the vulture, moving quickly, naturally and effectively (in accord with its evolved morphology) toward his “prey”. Though this interpretation may well be a “successful miscommunication” as Lacan would say, I will presently argue that Zhong is questioning what it means to achieve enlightenment/accord with the Dao – that Xing and Tai are still in flux in one’s psychological milieu – even in the case of meditation and accordance with the Dao.

    On the other hand, that vultures eat dead flesh is a bit of a snag. It may be that Zhong is also suggesting that the mind of today’s youth is misplaced. The implicit “prey” of the vulture, could also be understood as the child’s objet a (clearly there, but out of sight and “impossible to say”) Of course Zhong will say that the painting means whatever the audience interprets – but I cannot abide by this total relativism… but that is another conversation.

    On the other hand, I do not necessarily see why these two interpretations must be incompatible… but anyway

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