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The Absent Attendee


Zhu Zhu


Originally, “Beside the Girls” is the name of the second volume of ? la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past ) created by Proust, a French writer, while it was borrowed by Zhu Wei in 1997, used as the title of one of his ink and wash paintings. They show two plump girls who are in Lenin-style suits and the same gesture: holding the face and sitting with one leg lying over the other. On their slightly leaning faces we can see they have big eyes: they are borrowed from Zhu Da’s painting in which fish “shows its white of the eye”. However, unlike Zhu Da who wanted to express his scorn for the earthliness, maybe Zhu Wei uses such eyes to emphasize that the girls are reserved.

At first glance, the painting is created to recall the time when a youth reached his puberty: a boy was enthralled by the older sisters, who, as Red Guards, were bold and spirited then. However, it would be better to say the painting has depicted Zhu Wei’s mood after signing a contract with a western gallery. There is a note in the catalogue titled Ink and Wash Paintings by Zhu Wei from 1988 to 2008 printed later, “By ‘girls’, the painter does not specially refer to young and lovely females but the relaxing living environment. The life has opened a door leading to the broad world. Every time receiving letters with various stamps and from different countries, he feels ‘it is just like a dream in which I am beside the girls’.”


“It is just like a dream in which I am beside the girls”; the western image is superimposed with the sexual fantasy of his boyhood, from which we can see he is so deeply enthralled by the dream. However, in retrospect, we find that our esteem towards the western world has reached a dramatic climax after China was “unfrozen”. For Zhu Wei, such dramaticism is reflected not only in this painting but also in his personal life. In a fairly long period from the early 1990s to now, artists all consider that Zhu Wei is living in America or Europe, while indeed he is staying in no other places but Beijing. The reason for such a mistaken impression mostly lies in the fact that in 1993 he signed a contract with Plum Blossoms Gallery, an American gallery set in Hong Kong which represents him exclusively in the world.



在少女们身旁 Beside the Girls

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

Zhu Zhu: a poet, curator and art critic born in Yangzhou of Jiangsu in September, 1969. The main exhibitions he has curated include “The Yangtze River Bridge” (2007), “Origin Point: Star Star Group Retropspective Exhibition”(2007), “Case Studies of Artists in Art History and Art Criticism”(2008)  and “Reshaping History-Chinart from 2000 to 2009” (2009)co-curated with Lv Peng and Gao Qianhui.













乍看之下,这幅画是在追忆少年的情窦初开,文化大革命时期的一个小男孩为红卫兵大姐姐们的“英姿”而迷醉,不过,那更可以看成朱伟在当年与西方画廊签约之后的心境写照;在后来印行的《朱伟水墨画页 1988—2008》中,关于此画有这样一番注脚:“画家并非专指年轻、可爱的异性,更多意指的是自由宽松的生存环境,生活为艺术家敞开了一扇通往宽阔世界的大门。每每收到厚厚一叠从不同国度寄来的、贴着各种邮票的信件,朱伟说‘就像做梦,在少女们身旁’。”

“就像做梦,在少女们身旁”,西方的形像与少年时代的性梦想相叠合,这份迷醉真可谓非比寻常,不过,现在回想起来,在“解冻”之后的中国,我们对西方的崇拜确实很快就达到了戏剧化的高潮;而在朱伟这里,这份戏剧性不仅表现在这幅画作中,更显示于他个人的生活里——从上世纪九十年代初至今,这很长一段时间以来,艺术圈中的人都以为朱伟生活在美国或者欧洲的某个地方,其实他哪儿也没去,始终就生活在北京,而造成这种错觉的原因,很大程度上都可以归结为他1993年与设立在香港的美国画廊万玉堂(Plum Blossoms Gallery)签下了一纸合约,由后者在全球独家代理他的作品。


不过,合作所造成的负面后果要等到新世纪之后才会显现出来;对于画家本人来说,在其签约的初期,他的感受正如《在少女们身旁》这幅画所描述的,是一种来到了梦中情人身旁、与之互通款曲的沉醉与兴奋,需知“当时国内真没有画廊,王府井好像有一个,琉璃厂有几个,都是国营的,主要卖画框和钉子,售货员隔着柜台嗑瓜子玩儿;当时国内真没有美术馆,就一个中国美术馆,那是离休老干部发功的地方……”① 确实,在那个年代,国内几乎没有私立的画廊与美术馆,并且,也只有极少数的人会购买当代艺术,很多艺术家漂泊、挣扎于北京的郊区,衣食无着,乃至心中所盼就是一个星期之中能够在哪里吃上一顿肉,相比之下,那时的朱伟已经完全不用为生计而犯愁了。不仅如此,签约也意味着他可以出国,可以置身于西方,可以观摩那些恍然存在于传说中的美术馆与博物馆;他的展览在香港和纽约举办,他的作品接受着西方观众的注目——他俨然走在了“西征”的路上。


朱伟的水墨采用没骨工笔画法,笔墨承继了明清工笔人物画,气息有八大的桀骜不驯,画中的人物显得拙朴而戏谑,相对于那种力图引入西方观念来反拨中国画僵死状态的激进做法,朱伟认为根本就不需要发明新的语言,而是将先人的笔墨用于表达当代题材就已经足够,他在当代生活叙事方面极具创造力,不止于敏锐地捕捉世态的变迁,而且在画面里营造出古今叠映的空间,颇具超现实主义或魔幻现实主义的意味,而这实质上要归之于画家的现实感悟能力在历史意识方面的纵深,“他坚定地认为今天发生的一切,都可以在传统中找到原型,这成为他援引古典的思想基础,而这也的确是历史与当下的本来联系。”这种叙事带有“图象证史”的热情,只是在类型上更近于正史之外的稗史与章回体演义,或者,他就像一位说书人,以夸张而幽默的口吻,转述着现实中的街谈巷议与风俗故事,一如他自己所言,“我画我的世界,我自己的经历,你只要睁眼看看北京的任何一条街道,看看报纸,看看电视,就会发现我画的全都是那儿的东西。”② 一度有论者将之归于当时盛行的“政治波普”群体中,但是,相对于那种以二元对抗立场对集体经验所做的符号化截取,他的表述来得更为个人化,更富于日常现实感,也更具有宿命论前提之下的忧郁的张力与自我疏导意识,由此构成了一种人性化的具体关怀与写照。



















① 《西征梦》,作者朱伟,《Hi艺术》2007年7月号,p.155。
② 《World Within,World Without(世界之内,世界之外)》,作者Karen Smith(凯伦.史密斯),《Asian Art News 亚洲艺术新闻》1996年9/10月双月刊,p.66。
③ 《2007年过去了,我一点都不怀念它》,作者朱伟,《南方周末》2008年2月14日号“年度文化原创榜”,p.15。
④ 《里希特.中国当代艺术》,作者朱伟,《Hi艺术》2008年6月号,p.120。