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Li Xiaoshan



    Without doubt, Zhu Wei and his work have become a mirror of contemporary Chinese art.  Zhu Wei has penetrated the depths of reality with his extraordinary wit and sharpness, and opened a new door for the public to acquaint themselves with Chinese contemporary art through his works, which are lively and rich in visual tension. I have written an article which focuses on the following observation: the reason why Zhu Wei reigns supreme in the Chinese contemporary art scene is that, unlike other short-sighted artists who sacrifice their artistic ideal as a result of temptations of all sorts, Zhu Wei kept raising his artistic platform until it reached a height which is unsurpassed by others. Amazingly, he might be subtle and introverted in temperament, yet in art he is like a fighter charging ahead, seizing a foothold in the various fields of ink painting, printmaking and sculpture. Some of his works are already classics of our time, assuming an unchallengeable historical position. If my prediction is right, these works shall become monuments of artistic creation.  

    As an artist, a contemporary Chinese artist in particular, many complicated factors have been transformed outwardly into the set design behind the work. People seem to enjoy and be enamoured of the ornaments in the set. To quote Li Xianting: “What is important is not the art” - but what is?  Many years ago I was involved in a discussion with several art critics about some strange phenomena in Chinese contemporary art. We all came to the conclusion that, because of outside disturbances and inborn anaemia, our artists generally suffer from malnutrition; not because they lack talent or have devoted too little effort; it would certainly be unfair to ask that they strive to make up their inborn limitations.  If at all there is a problem with the artists, it’s because the soil which nurtures them is barren. The limitations are pre-set and it’s not difficult to trace the root-cause of all kinds of narrations. Still, there is an exception to everything and a few members of the cream of China’s contemporary art scene seem to possess a kind of self-sufficiency. This element of self-sufficiency is rooted in their genius and vision, which transports them beyond pre-set limitations.   


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    One day, some years ago, I had a chat with Zhu Wei about the relation between the fame of an artist and artistic creation, and I discovered, to my surprise, how low-keyed he is. Then I remembered someone once told me Zhu Wei is an interesting subject - one can always uncover something out of the ordinary from him. I have received material on him, from the artist himself, in which there is no lack of records of excellence. Yet I could see his effort in trying to conceal those records. Westerners like to say that your character is your fate. Many people do not know how to treat their fate;
 Zhu Wei never flaunts his achievement or outlines a grand panorama of his vision for the future. To quote him, he just “labours silently like a hard-working farmer.” 

    In the grip of summer heat Zhu Wei arrived in Nanjing on a tour. During our conversation we hit on the idea to record the content of our casual chat and should something worthwhile emerge, to compile it into a collection of dialogue on art and life. The dialogue went on for nine days and basically our thoughts and positions conveyed in the process were well captured with the recording. We titled the recording Talk of Nine Days to give it a time dimension. It was perhaps the first time Zhu Wei had delved deep into things he seldom touches on in ordinary life, and I discovered a passion in him for the expression of feelings hidden underneath his linguistic simplicity and self-repression. Despite his low-keyed style and unwillingness to get into verbal flourish, I believe I captured his linguistic buoy. His talent and perseverance are illustrated not only in his paintings - he has an immense inner strength which is amazing.  

    In his discussion of the artistic traits of artists, Taine emphasised: “There is a ‘family’ behind all the artists.” To me it means no artist can avoid a certain inherent restraint on him/her. I discovered an interesting fact in my reading of some of the critiques of Zhu Wei by critics outside China: these critics (including art curators) inevitably hold a common stand in their interpretation of contemporary Chinese art - they try their very best to crack the ‘secret political code’ hidden in the work of Chinese artists; with thoughts turned to a political linkage even in seemingly ordinary scenes or depictions. I think the political interest in the Chinese artists has obviously been exaggerated - even demonised - by some Westerners. Yet, from an ideological and psychological perspective, this phenomenon is enhanced by a relationship of mutual dependence. Zhu Wei’s art is the product of this age and, to quote Taine again, a member of the “family”. The question is: can we find artistic expressions that are deeper in nature, given the fact that all are typical works of the same age? What’s contained in some representative works of Zhu Wei is neither a statement nor cynicism or play; its implications are different from ‘political pop’.  Here I would like to add that there is often a basis to the political complex of the Chinese artists, whose thread is clearly discernable. Prompted by a desire to give vent to personal feelings, artists are unanimously attracted to common subjects and themes; the effect of the ‘family’ is evident. In handling his subjects, Zhu Wei skilfully turns a certain collective unconsciousness into a unique personal viewpoint. In his work he ingeniously interweaves his childhood dreams with real-life circumstances, constructing a virtual reality that runs parallel to life; a reality that is filled with all sorts of contradictory contrasts which dissolve unenthusiastically into harmony, and which mirrors a pain in the depths of his spirit. At the same time, the pain reflects his genuine concern for society and humanity. 


    Zhu Wei has repeatedly emphasised to me the essence of “humanity” rather than the so-called “political complex”. As far as the issue of humanity is concerned, specific concern can be demonstrated only within the scope of a specific linguistic context, since there is no pure, abstract humanity.   However, his concern for humanity makes Zhu Wei more mature than his contemporaries. Zhu Wei does not explicitly reveal the ‘humanity’ aspect but keeps his feelings condensed at the level of sensibilities which, for an artist, happens to be a solid and effective gesture. I wish to elaborate that ‘humanity’ in the eyes of Zhu Wei is interpreted variedly from the lengthy and laborious one offered by the intellectuals. He approaches it from the soil of existence stripped of all frills.

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Humanity is pervasive while political complex changes with time.  That Zhu Wei is able to deepen his themes on the basis of humanity is a crafty act.  I have seen quite a large number of Zhu Wei’s works and realised that the myriad themes are but contours of expressions for him; what lies at the core of these works is his superb grasp of man’s situation in life. Be it a work that impresses outwardly as politically-inclined or one that reflects his personal experiences, the common thread which runs through them is evident. 

    Ink painting is the main medium utilised by Zhu Wei, who has also created a considerable number of sculptures and prints. Wherever one might find his ink pieces, it is obvious, from motif to expressiveness, the artist has exploited to the full the expressive powers of the medium. One might say that in his hands ink painting is no longer an art medium but a deft mother-tongue, a tool which he wields to perfection. I have seen too many shoddy works and works which showcase petty acts; there are indeed many painters around us who win fame and fortune by gimmicky feats; such a trend tends to threaten, to erode, all the artists inside the circle. Zhu Wei doesn’t mind if he is considered an insider or not - he counters the erosion almost by a kind of self-exile. His ink paintings are much sought after by a considerable number of collectors, but I think few among them truly comprehend the meaning of his works. I have written an article titled From Chinese Painting to Ink in which I state the change in concept is actually a change in standpoint. The endless debates on ‘Chinese Painting’ are due to the ambiguity in concept, while ‘Ink’ is a medium. Hence it is highly flexible, in terms of the scope and form of its expression. Zhu Wei doesn’t care much for the kind of expressive (xie yi) ink paintings which are casually composed, and rejects others which are shabbily painted on the spur of the moment. An American researcher of Chinese art history has asserted that the rise of the expressive (xie yi) painting halted the development of Chinese art history. Putting aside the issue of whether this is bigotry, his judgment was formed on account of the phenomenon he observed. Chinese painters are fond of saying “One should follow the spirit of the ancients and not their way.” This rather reverses the correct order of things. From the works of many contemporary artists one can see that much of the way of the ancients has been used with the “spirit” thrown to the wind. Zhu Wei makes no bones about his love of gongbi (fine-lined traditional style) painting. In his work, the mode of gongbi as a form of expression serves to bring out the idea and atmosphere of his imagery. His use of line, colour and texture shows continuity of the traditional practice, but because his conceptualisation originates from reality, a flavour of contemporary time is palpable in his works. In the creation of imagery I would say he has surpassed the ancients. And I must again emphasise the contemporary flavour of his imagery - note that many contemporary artists love to resort to the externalisation of self-image, but in Zhu’s work, its handling has become a symbol of the times. Many years later, the images in his painting shall be the visual code with which people can distinguish our era.      At one time there were heated discussions among Chinese art critics about the limitations of the expressive power of ink painting, which obviously runs counter to the present situation of contemporary art.  Take Zhu Wei for example: whether ink painting, printmaking or sculpting, genre and medium are of no significance - when the time is ripe an artist will give life to whatever form of art when spurred by a creative impulse. The prints of Zhu Wei take on the characteristics of his ink painting: abbreviated, pure and simple, and full of visual tension. Furthermore, the nature of the print material serves to enhance the form quality of his imagery.  Zhu Wei’s sculptures are scattered in various regions outside of China, which makes it difficult for the mainland viewers to view them. I have told Zhu Wei that sculpture is quite an impressive component of his repertoire and that I would like to invite him to participate in a forth-coming exhibition of architecture and sculpture which I am planning. I think the fact that Zhu’s works have captured the fancy of overseas organisations and individual collectors also gives an international dimension to his art, and adds a demonstrative value to it. 

    Dictated by his habits and predilections, Zhu Wei moves forward, step-by-step, remaining as low-keyed and earthy as he has always been. I have reasons to believe that he is growing and heading for his zenith, and that of our times. Today, more and more people have a clear view of his gigantic stature. This is the triumph of time - just like they say: “Time is the final judge.” 


First published in Zhu Wei: New Pictures of the Strikingly Bizarre, p.8-17, published by Singapore Print Institute and Plum Blossoms (International) Ltd., 2005

Professor Li Xiaoshan is the director of Graduate School of Contemporary Art of Nanjing University of the Arts, and director of Art Museum of Nanjing University of the Arts.








朱 伟








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朱伟被他的生活惯性拉动着一步步迈进,依旧如往常一样低调和朴实,但是我有理由相信,他是与我们这个时代的艺术一起成长并一起登顶的,时至今日,越来越多的人终于 看清了他高大的身影,这是时间的胜利,——正如俗话所说的,时间是最终的裁判者。


首次刊发于新加坡泰勒版画研究院及Plum Blossoms国际有限公司2005年出版画册《朱伟 新二刻拍案惊奇》,第8-17页

李小山 南京艺术学院教授,美术馆馆长,当代艺术研究所所长。