At that time Plum Blossoms Gallery offered him a munificent reward, and in exchange he had to finish the required quantity of works. Besides, having signed a contract, he no longer attended art exhibitions individually but was shaped and valued by the gallery in their own way. For more than ten years from then on, the gallery had successfully publicized the artist who was born in Mainland China in 1966. However, the so called “success” merely lay in business. Reading his resume, we can learn that from the 1990s to 2006 around, all that he attended were commercial exhibitions, namely, the international art expositions held in Hong Kong, Taipei, New York, Singapore, Melbourne, and so on - few of them had academic significance.
However, the adverse consequence of the cooperation did not appear before entering the new century. For the artist, when he first signed the contract, he was intoxicated and excited, just as what the painting “Beside the Girls” has depicted: he came to his dream lover and talked with her with deep affection. It is noted that “there were no real galleries in China then. People could find one in Wangfujing Street and several on Liulichang, but indeed they were state-run stores mainly selling picture frames and nails, with shop assistants cracking sunflower seeds behind the counters. Then there were really no art museums in China, either. We had only one National Art Museum of China which was indeed used by retired veteran cadres to take exercises…”① That is true. In the past, China had no private gallery or art museum, and few people would buy contemporary works of art. A lot of artists were wandering and struggling in the suburbs of Beijing, worrying about their life; what they wish was merely eating some meat every week. Compared with them, Zhu Wei had completely got rid of the trouble of living. Besides, signing with the gallery meant he got the opportunity to go abroad and visit the galleries and museums in the western world which were legendary for him. His exhibitions were held in Hong Kong and New York, and his works were enjoyed by western audience - he was on the way of “western expedition”.
Such an experience has brought him a sense of superiority. He has admitted frankly that in the whole 1990s, he avoided communicating with domestic art circles, almost deliberately. He had refused all invitations from exhibitions at home, including the one named “China’s Tomorrow” held in Paris. All familiar with contemporary art history know that the western world did not realized the existence of China’s avant-garde art until the opening of that exhibition, and all artists attended the exhibition became representatives of contemporary art in China…At that time, besides painting, Zhu Wei, who might have missed the most important chance in his life, was in close contact with the rock and roll circles; especially, he formed deep friendship with Cui Jian. He has designed the stage setting for Cui’s singing tour in the USA, and the mood of rock and roll has also exerted an impact on his paintings. For example, the painting “Eggs under a Red Banner” created in 1994 was named after Cui’s song, and we can also find Cui’s image and lyrics in the series of “China’s Diary”, “the Public Square” and “the Running Horse in a Rainy Evening” finished in the 1990s. The rebellion and freedom esteemed by rock and roll as well as the expression and unleashing of the pain and desire in the inner world are magically drawn on the old and soft rice paper with his ink and paints. “Brushwork should follow the times”: the discipline made by Shi Tao has frustrated numerous ink and wash painters who want to change their subjects and styles after the implementation of reform and opening policy, with the context of agrarian society being replaced by the cultural awareness of modern cities gradually. However, it seems that Zhu Wei has successfully felt the “pulse of the times” in rock and roll whose rhythm is much more powerful and crazier than that of the reality.
Zhu Wei’s meticulous ink-and-wash paintings are non-outlined fine brushwork. Having inherited the features of meticulous figure paintings created in Ming and Qing Dynasties, the paintings show something wild and unruly, as what is expressed by Zhu Da’s works, and the figures are simple but funny. Some radical artists advocate the reviving of our dying Chinese paintings by introducing in Western concepts, while Zhu considers that there is no need to invent new language and it is excellent enough to express contemporary subject matters with ancestors’ brushwork. He is extremely creative in narrating the modern life, being able to not only subtly capture the change of the world but also create a space where modern and previous elements are superimposed in his paintings, making his works full of the sense of surrealism and magic realism. Indeed, all these should attribute to the painter’s capability in understanding the reality and profound historic knowledge. “Firmly, he considers that all that happen today have their prototypes in the tradition, which is his basis of borrowing classical elements and the truth reflecting the natural association between history and today.” Such narration is full of passion of “proving the history with images” and is similar to unofficial historic records and romance divided into chapters. We can also say that he is like a storyteller who is telling the gossip and folk stories exaggeratedly and humorously, just as what he has said, “What I draw is the world and the experience of my own. Just have a look at any streets of Beijing, just read newspapers and watch your TV, and you will find the source of the subjects of my paintings.” ②He has once been counted as “Political Pop” which was popular then. However, compared with the symbolic interception of collective experience with an attitude of binary opposition, his expression is more personalized, familiar, realistic and with more tension and the awareness of self-persuasion on the premise of fatalism, by which the concrete human-based concern and reflection are realized.
His works sell well overseas, which can prove this. Here we have a legendary anecdote. In 1994, at Asian Art Fair held in Hong Kong, a quarrel broke about between two collectors, because both of them wanted to enjoy one of Zhu’s paintings earlier. At the turn of the century, his news appeared frequently in various journals such as Asian Week, Asian Art News and Time - undoubtedly such response directly resulted from the new appearance he has given to ink and wash paintings as well as the smart and outstanding operation of the gallery. However, the gallery also reined the artist more tightly for gaining more profit, and it had kept him away from some rare and important academic exhibitions and collection chances privily. For example, Melbourne International Biennale, a great exhibition in numerous artists’ dreams, had invited Zhu, but the gallery did not pass the invitation to him. As to collection, when a private collector bid higher than Missouri State Museum did, the gallery chose the former, without considering the latter’s scale and influence as well as the painter’s willingness. Obviously, such business-oriented behaviors went against the formation of the artist’s image and the value of art itself. At the same time, his works sold so well that he had to copy his own works in large quantities to satisfy the orders. Thus a lot of his works were nothing but variants of his other paintings and created to fulfill the client’s requirements. Consequently his motivation and passion of painting had been badly harmed.
If we say Zhu Wei was absent domestically on purpose in the 1990s, he became a real absentee in the new century. The cold war has become history and China’s contemporary art has turned a global hotspot gradually. Some Chinese artists, such as Fang Lijun, Zhang Xiaogang and Wang Guangyi, have shown their talent on the international stage and composed the main part narrated in the history of China’s contemporary art. By contrast, like a satellite running along another orbit, Zhu Wei is facing the risk of being forgotten. There is an index which can be quantified commercially. In 2002 and 2003, his ink and wash paintings had the same price with oil paintings done by his counterparts such as Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang; while during the following years, the latter’s price has increased tenfold or even a-hundred fold. The gap has been broadened so much during a few years.
The gap is formed out of a lot of reasons, and one of them is undoubtedly the arbiter acted by the West. Thus the Chinese artists who conduct politicized expression with western artistic media and style are preferred by its standard of values, while the works reserving the true essence of a nation have been neglected. There are some ink-and-wash painters who are globally famous such as Xu Bing and Gu Wenda, but what they emphasize more are the application of conceptual art and the expression of cultural clash. Compared with them, the media, techniques and content of Zhu Wei’s paintings are so localized. His works created in the 1990s never lack acute expression of political issues, but his opposition is done in a less direct way and the narration is more nationalized, thus westerners feel hard to translate his semantic meanings. Besides, it is easier for a group, movement or school to be recognized and known during the reformation of art, while his cooperation with Plum Blossoms Gallery as well as his unconventional attitude and behavior have also isolated him from the native artistic system; consequently, he is treated as an emigrant artist who has went beyond the boundary of China by domestically.
“I have never left Beijing”, now he often emphasizes. However, it seems that these words show his repentance for “being regarded as a guest”. Anyway, Zhu Wei seems to become “the dual other”. His absence he drunk on before has now become a kind of punishment. It is his unique experience and anxiety, the regret and introspection for himself as well as his participation in and witness of the development of contemporary art have made his essays so aggressive, bitter and radical. In his column articles written for Hi Art, we can find the dual critique and sarcasm towards both China and the western world. What he highlights is just the discourse hegemony held by western colonialism:
Several decades have passed, and all artists - no matter the Avant-Garde, the Rear-Garde, the 85 New Art Movement members or those Post 89 Artists, who are seriously doing art and having a sense of mission towards culture - feel somewhat disappointed. Although they never say uncle, it is a fact that their dreams have vanished. Just like when we visit peoples in their home and make a pizza with our own flour and eggs and their cookers; they feel the pizza is delicious and say we Chinese are great cooks. However, when we say, “Let’s try something Chinese”, then the westerners may look displeased with a long face right away.①
What is more, now he is extremely sensitive and deeply horrified by the colonization trend of China’s contemporary art. For example, shocked and unexpected, he found “half of the history of China’s contemporary art is occupied by Richter”, and by such imitation artist can achieve great success:
In China, more than 100 artists are imitating Richter through adopting his “out-of-focus” technique. However, at the end of last year, the price of Richter’s works was even less than half the price of those created by Chinese artists, and less popular, too…③
Now the “fake” is superior to the authentic works, which should not be merely considered as a kind of worship and imitation for Zhu Wei. He thinks that worship and imitation include certain sincerity and cognitive effort, but in China, the contemporary artists are eagerly acting as followers and partially plagiarizing, without researching and analyzing the origin and context of Western art by the roots; what they are pursuing is nothing but to make their works “contemporary” as quick as possible:
The train of contemporary art does not start from China. Therefore, without any idea of what to do, artists, critics, secondhand-deals of artistic works, and so on, can only borrow the strategy adopted by the Railway Guerrilla when fighting against Japanese invaders in WWII: with rakes in their hands, they try their best to strip the train and earn as much as they could whenever there are coming trains. ③
However, Richter’s works are changing, and the train of western contemporary art is still advancing. Undoubtedly, for China’s contemporary art, which is imitating westerner’s every move, following others’ orbit will ruin its independence and future:
China’s contemporary art has struggled to complete itself by doing a scissors-and-paste job, and now we have everything that western art has equipped with. Entering the 20th century, western contemporary art is developing with a great pace, so it is beyond our imagination that what will happen and come into style, and we may even be at a loss what to do: maybe this is the sorrow of China’s contemporary art. ④
It is a fact that for a long time China’s contemporary art has “borrowed weapons” from the west world. After a long process during which imitation is superior to the original and impatience is more than calmness, it seems that China’s contemporary art has come to a turning point. Reflections in Said’s style can be found everywhere, and tradition is emphasized again. Indeed, Zhu Wei’s reflection resulting from vigilance and deep sorrow for his own experience has begun early when the craziness of China’s contemporary was on the climax. With a Beijing accent, his essays seemed to be bitter, supercilious and annoying then, and they might have been taken by the proud achievers as abuses and complaint released by an obsolescent artist. However, after the art market has cooled down because of the financial crisis, if the artists, who have been forced to give up their proud, read these short essays again, maybe they will find that they have been depicted in those articles.
Zhu Wei persists in using traditional paper, ink and media, for which he can feel proud of himself. This kind of cultural identity which is relatively clearer has become the internal scales with which he measure and criticize contemporary art. Now he is looking forward to the revival of ink and wash paintings, and he believes his wish will come true. However, it appears that his views are over-corrected to some extent, because media themselves are not decisive, and excluding foreign things in art may narrow the cultural perspective and encourage the Populism. We have to admit that nowadays the domestic culture is not enclosed and we have become “insiders” because of globalization during which absorption and assimilation are inevitable, “Current tradition has got ready to openly talk with other traditions as well as untraditional approaches to matters” (Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Post-tradition). Applying that to art, we can say we need not feel guilty when learning from Richter and Warhol or making use of western devices, electric technology and mixed media. The key lies in whether the learning accords with the requirement of expression, and whether we have borrowed can be transformed and applied creatively and actually associated with the subjectivity of our own culture.
Now Zhu Wei paints few. It seems that he is making up for the days he was “beside the girls” during which he missed a lot and fooled by the destiny. It is important for him to regain his passion and turn the disturbing experience full of glory, dream, pain, anger, disappointment and disillusionment into treasure in spirit and will after such a special circle of life. He settles in the suburb of Beijing while his studio is located by International Trade Center at the heart of central business district of Beijing. Watching from the French window occupying a whole wall, one can hold a panoramic view of the CBD and observe the traffic of the city, with the Third Ring Road and the Fourth Ring Road just in front of his eyes. Then he can get home before the desperate rush hour toward the close of a day.
In the Spring of 2011
① “Dreaming of an Expedition to the West”, Zhu Wei, July, 2007 Issue of Hi Art, p. 155.
② “World Within，World Without”, Karen Smith, Asian Art News, September and October1996 bimonthly issue p.66
③ “Year 2007 has gone by, and I didn’t miss it a bit ”, Zhu Wei, “2007 Salutatory: The Cultural Authorship List”, Southern Weekend published on February 14th, 2008, p.15.
④ “Gerhard Richter . Chinese Contemporary Art”, Zhu Wei, June2008 Issue of Hi Art, p. 120.
First Published in Oriental Art . Master First Semimonthly of May, 2011, p.78-81