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“Humanistic” Portraits in the Revolutionary Era

 --About Zhu Wei’s Work


As contemporary Chinese art has aroused more and more international attention, following nearly 30 years of development and evolution, Chinese art has entered a new stage. Many artists, at varying points, have realized the importance of the Chinese art tradition, and have attempted to create contemporary art works that simultaneously resonate with traditional factors and capture the contemporary Chinese social state of mind. This comes down to the matter of cultural identity, an issue which is commonly discussed at international forums. Frankly speaking, it’s about answering the following questions: Who am I? Where am I from? Where am I going? How do I distinguish myself from previous artists? How am I different from other cultures? As people continue addressing these questions in their thought and practice, art will perpetually innovative itself. 

Zhu Wei is an artist who constantly explores these issues. He is a serious, wise and humorous thinker and a diligent practitioner. His optimism causes him to have an open approach to developing his work, but there are two questions that he continually seeks answers to. The first is the excessively political interpretation made by the overseas critics on his works. The other is the debate and classification made by the domestic audiences and critics over the classification of his works—whether they are to be considered traditional Chinese paintings or whether they deserve another type of taxonomy.  I personally think that within the field of contemporary Chinese art, which is becoming increasingly internationalized, the two problems have great universal significance. Many artists are plagued by these same set of problems, and while these answers may prove to be elusive, the process by which individual artists express their doubts and questions is crucial for both artistic and social development. 

Zhu Wei’s first concern—the excessively political interpretation of his work—can be understood within the context of cultural differences and misunderstandings. On the Chinese mainland, Chinese contemporary art was historically marginalized by mainstream ideology because it was regarded as heretical, but gained appreciation from Western audiences early on. The development of contemporary Chinese art owes a great deal to the early interest and support of Western democratic countries; however, Western art specialists often do not possess a comprehensive and experiential understanding of Chinese cultural and political history. Instead, Chinese history is understood in a generalist perspective, whereby Chinese communism and the Cultural Revolution are regarded in limited terms. Thus, artistic works that bear political or revolutionary symbols often elude critics but are easily understood by Chinese audiences. While the earliest Political Pop images can be read as satirical criticisms on China’s socialist revolution, the cynical criticisms and images of the early 1990’s and the commercialized subversive images all have profound social, political, and psychological roots. These works reflect the social reality of the last 20 years in socialist China. Therefore, the emergence of two Chinese contemporary currents acceptable by the west - Political Pop and Cynical Realism - in the mid 1990’s is understandable. It is therefore not surprising that the “New Generation” movement of young artists in the academies, who emerged at the same time as the Political Pop genre, have been neglected by the mainstream Western art audiences. 

There are two significant issues that need to be clarified to art audiences outside of China. First, is that not all of the contemporary visual narration about the Chinese socialist era is exclusively about politics; second, is that the works that do call political attention to the Cultural Revolution often possess a wide range of varying political beliefs. Zhu Wei’s works are suitable examples to explore these issues.  

Zhu Wei was born in Beijing in the 1960’s to a family with a military background, and his childhood memories are rife with the frenzy of revolution and socialism. At that time, primary education was also flooded with utopian slogans and ideals like: “Realizing Communism” and “Liberate Mankind.” Images of the red scarf, red flag, red star, red book (Mao’s quotations), sickle and axe, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, and others, appeared as widely as commercial advertisements do today. Although many people currently critique this tumultuous age from a retrospective standpoint, Zhu Wei remembers these events as he experienced them as a child—his memories are not tainted with the negativity of heated combat and tyrannical rule, but capture the innocence of vivid childhood memories of this age. In many ways, Zhu Wei’s works suggest that being a child during the revolution was significantly freer than growing up under the pressures of present-day China. In order to respect Zhu Wei’s true experiences, one must recognize that the artist does not possess strong hatred for that age, but considers the era an imperfect, but precious life experience. Therefore, his works often depict the Cultural Revolution with a mild and neutral point of view, and always presents them with a sense of humor. Unlike other artists who invoke the attitude of “Great Criticism” to critique the Cultural Revolution, Zhu Wei remains honest to his impressions and memories as seen through the eyes of an innocent child.   

In his “The Heavenly Maiden” and “Utopia” series, Zhu Wei uses his own artistic language to relate his impressions of China’s revolutionary era—the mixed feelings of purity and piety, innocence and helplessness appear in his subjects’ faces. His “Festival” series deliberates on feelings of seriousness, contemplation, and anxiety, while his “Story of Beijing” caricatures the scenes of military parades occurring during the Cultural Revolution.  The consistent use of a child’s innocent viewpoint to depict the stories and experiences of the Cultural Revolution is what differentiates Zhu Wei’s works from conceptual and sloganistic “Political Pop,” and it is this innocence which lends his work an honest and warm “humanist” perspective on this time. This kind of non-“abstract humanism” bred during the Cultural Revolution, is understood by those who personally lived through those times, but for historical bystanders, who understand the era through rational and universal concepts of humanity, it is often difficult to appreciate the delicate “humanity” delivered by Zhu Wei’s works. This emphasis on personal life experience remains drastically different from the messages delivered in “Political Pop” works. 

Zhu Wei’s latest series, “Vernal Equinox” and “Spring Herald,” reveal the artist’s efforts to stress tradition over political critique. His work “Madam Gou’s Spring Outing” reflects this turn towards tradition, as he invokes the symbolic subject of spring, a recurring theme in traditional Chinese works. In the “Vernal Equinox,” Zhu Wei paints a group of blossoming peony flowers juxtaposed alongside six figures that have just emerged from the winter, still dressed in heavy winter coats. The figures look like dolls, posed in similar costumes, postures, and expressions. By painting the peach flowers with the traditional Gongbi technique, Zhu Wei taps into traditional spring metaphors—collectively, they compose the artist’s retrospection and memories of springtime during his childhood. In “Spring Herald,” Zhu Wei’s portrait depicts the experience of seasonal change, and the anticipation of an imminent spring. The figure’s face and clothing are painted red, while the background is a pool of light green water surging through the chilly winter. In front of the figure’s chest, Zhu Wei has deliberately placed a blossoming peony flower. Using repetitions of flowers, spring water, simply ordained figures, the “Vernal Equinox” and “Spring Herald” series provide us with images of the spring theme, their visual sense of humor and their symbolic significance help the audience relish this experience time after time. On these works, Zhu Wei also uses an unusually large number of traditional red seals. These seals, once transplanted onto his works, carry both traditional style and contemporary meaning, reflecting the artist’s endearment for and recycling of the tradition. 

Although many of Zhu Wei’s works concern China’s socialism and the Cultural Revolution, these are told through his memory of that era. They are impressions that have been deeply planted in his mind, and impressions that represent the memories of people of his generation. Often times, Western perceptions of contemporary Chinese art are informed by Western perspectives that regard the Cultural Revolution as inhumane and barbaric, and socialist China as autocratic and ruthless.  However, there are still artists like Zhu Wei who follow their own feelings and extract artistic inspiration from their experiences of living through socialist China. Both representations of this era are true, but the latter is more individual and vivid; it is the depiction of life experience that can consistently relate to the people of that generation. 

In addition to Zhu Wei’s aforementioned concern about common Western misinterpretation of his works, the artist also places high priority on the way in which his work is regarded in China. This concern deals mainly with the classification of his work, and the recognition of his work’s language. Because contemporary art is generally thought to include oil painting, photography, installation and computer art, among others, traditional Chinese art mediums are often overlooked within the contemporary art realm. As a result, many artistic experiments and innovative attempts to use traditional ink and wash or calligraphy have been marginalized by contemporary art. Both orthodox Chinese painting and mainstream contemporary art don’t seriously accept experimental ink and wash painting. Zhu Wei employs Gongbi technique, which is considered even more traditional than freehand ink painting, and moreover, the Gongbi technique, compared with the freehand ink painting, is more marginalized in the realm of traditional Chinese painting and ink painting. Therefore, while it appears that the differences between traditional Chinese painting techniques, like Gongbi and freehand painting, and contemporary art mediums are immeasurable, Zhu Wei has managed to incorporate the traditional Gongbi technique into his contemporary artwork. His example illustrates the flexibility of contemporary art in accepting different forms of Chinese traditional art. 

Over 20 years ago, Li Xiaoshan was brave enough to make a poignant criticism upon the self-enmeshed and conformist state of traditional Chinese painting, and while this criticism had become an important denunciation of Chinese modern art, it did not offer any constructive opinions to artists. Young Chinese artists responded to this critique by beginning their individual explorations, creating different genres, styles, theories and methods such as: modern ink and wash, experimental ink and wash, conceptual ink and wash, city ink and wash, modern calligraphy, and new literati artist works. The effects of these explorations were remarkable, causing several influential artists to emerge, including: Tian Liming, Liu Qinghe, Liu Zijian, and Wang Tiande. While there were also several young artists who investigated the possibility of incorporating tradition in contemporary artistic practice, Zhu Wei is the one of the earliest artists to investigate and gain recognition from his practice. 

In my opinion, Gongbi ink paintings are more readily acceptable by Chinese contemporary art than are freehand ink paintings for three reasons.  First off, freehand brushwork no longer retains any conventional standards regarding format, skill and aesthetic standards.   The reputation and identity of freehand brushwork has also been corroded by the widespread commercialization of this style of painting, leading to the production of a large number of poor quality works. Lastly, the emphasis that freehand brushwork places on chance, improvisation, emotion, and frivolousness are seemingly incompatible with contemporary arts’ appreciation of rational spirit. Gongbi painting holds its advantages in all of the three aspects, especially the last point. This technique offers artists the opportunity to incorporate rational aesthetic qualities regarding color and technique, thereby exemplifying the unique features of their work. 

Zhu Wei has spared no effort in incorporating the essence of many forms of traditional art practice into his works, not just through his use of Gongbi painting, but also through his adept knowledge of traditional Chinese painting theories, Chinese bronzeware, ancient grotto murals, seal cutting and paper craft. One can observe the profound traditional influences on Zhu Wei’s work, such as composition that is as precise as seal cutting; figure sculpting that is as simple and sober as bronze ware; and outlines as mellow and terse as porcelain. Thus, in viewing Zhu Wei’s works, the audience can sense his mastery of traditional artistic craft, and his ability to incorporate those essential elements into his works. Because Chinese traditional culture has such a rich and extensive history, many wonder which elements of traditional culture should be retained in contemporary works. In response to this question, Zhu Wei’s art offers many answers: he notes that his favorite masters in art history are Gu Hongzhong from the Five Dynasties, Li Song and Fan Kuan from the Northern Song Dynasty and Qiu Ying from the Ming Dynasty—all individuals who have had significant impact on the development of Chinese Gongbi painting. When comparing Zhu Wei with those who mention “Shi Tao” or “Ba Da” in referencing tradition, Zhu Wei clearly has his own preferences for the Gongbi style. 

As communication between China and the world increases, the world’s understanding of Chinese culture is getting deeper. As this awakens audiences to Chinese artistic concepts, Zhu Wei’s works have gained a lot more interest and appreciation amongst artistic audiences worldwide.  I have once previously stated that:  Chinese contemporary art is an epistemic field that is constantly renovating and transforming, and as a result is mutually affected by Chinese historical culture, current events, and the global democratic social cultural trend of thought. Therefore, if you only understand China but not the world, you can’t really understand the value of Chinese contemporary art, and vice versa. Due to the fact that Chinese contemporary art is accepted in the world and speculated in the domestic market, people are easily misled by surface level information. So to appreciate valuable and outstanding contemporary artwork is not an easy task, it requires a great deal of patience and study. Zhu Wei’s artistic creations illustrate the range of issues that are being investigated in the field of contemporary Chinese art, and one can acquire significant insight into the field of contemporary Chinese art simply by analyzing his work. 

As one of Zhu Wei’s contemporaries, I feel that Chinese people who were born in the sixties can be considered lucky. Because we were born when the Cultural Revolution was already underway, our lives weren’t significantly impacted by this era, yet, we retain profound memories of the socialist time period. We came of age in the 1980’s, experiencing the upsurge of the reform and opening up, and finally, at the end of that decade, encountered the unprecedented Tiananmen Square incident. Today, people around the age of 40 have passed through many different stages of societal change and have experienced a spectrum of emotions, ranging from joy to sorrow. In this constantly developing and drastically changing social environment, we have gradually become the core force of the society. As a sensitive artist, Zhu Wei is deeply committed to his social mission, under what he considers to be a historical opportunity; he endeavors to record his contemporaries’ attitudes towards history and culture, life and the world, and to leave a distinctive mark in history. 

The value of Zhu Wei’s work lies primarily in his in-depth and refined study of Chinese traditional art, and his ability to incorporate essential traditional artistic elements into his contemporary works. Secondly, he is able to expand traditional artistic language to include contemporary artistic concepts, organically integrating traditional and contemporary artistic languages. At the same time, his works express a certain “humanism”: individual feelings towards a specific historical era. During his artistic career, which has lasted more than 20 years, Zhu Wei has devoted relentless efforts to his practice, and has achieved most compelling results. As time passes, the foremost contemporary Chinese artists will emerge, and Zhu Wei’s works will undeniably be recognized as symbolic emblems of their time.  


Zhang Zhaohui

 January 2007


First published in Zhu Wei, p.2-5, published by J.Bastien Art, Belgium, 2007

Zhang Zhaohui is a noted  arts scholar and curator from China.  He grew up in Beijing and received his Bachelor of Art Degree from the esteemed Nankai University in Tianjing in 1988, before going on to earn a Master of Art Degree in modern art history from China Art Academy seven years later.  In 1998 he graduated from Bard College in New York with another Master of Art Degree in Curatorial Studies.  He has received numerous grants and fellowships, including a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council and Luce Foundation in 1997, and a visiting scholarship at Asialink. During the years between 1988 and 1992 he served on the curatorial staff at the National Museum of Art in Beijing, whereas he was the director of the Curatorial Section at He Xiangning Art Museum in Shenzhen from 1999 until 2000.  He became the founding director of Beijing Xray Art Center in 2002, a highly prestigious organization which is widely considered an important contributor to contemporary art in China before the appearance of 798 art compound. He is now director of Joey Art Consulting, an art institution in 798 art complex.















先来谈朱伟的第一个困惑,即关于作品内容和主题的多余的政治化猜测。平心而论,中国当代艺术的兴起是在西方先进文化的激励下而发展起来,它在中国大陆曾经被作为异端而长期受到主流意识形态的排挤和压抑,但在西方文明世界却受到了追捧。因为中国当代艺术的被接受与欣赏首先是从西方民主国家开始的,而且在一定程度上是因为受到主流排斥的大陆非官方艺术得到了西方民主世界的同情与扶植而逐步发展起来。因此西方的艺术专家对中国社会生活情境没有亲历的感性认识,而是对中国共产运动与文革的集体性猜测。所以在评论中国艺术家的作品的时候,那些有中国政治与革命符号的作品往往容易得到西方评论者的阐释并得到观众的理解。 应该承认,从最早的那些讽刺和批判中国社会主义革命的政治波谱形象,到90年代初期的犬儒主义式的符号与形象,以及商业化的媚俗图象,在中国都有着深厚的社会政治背景和心理学根基,这些作品也在很大程度上反映了社会主义中国最近二十年的社会现实。因此,在90年代中期出现了两个受到西方接受的中国当代潮流-政治波谱和讽刺现实主义-是可以理解的,同时,和政治波谱同时出现的年轻的学院艺术家的“新生代”艺术现象在某种程度上受到西方艺术主流的忽略也就不觉得奇怪了。 



在《天女散花》和《乌托邦》系列中,朱伟用自己的艺术语言对革命时代的印象进行了高度的概括,人物的表情中有纯真与虔诚,无辜与无助相混合的感觉;在《节日》系列中,艺术家刻画了大人们严肃而凝重并充满焦虑的表情;在《北京故事》中,他将文革中军人游行的场景描绘成卡通的形象。所以,用孩子的童贞的眼光来描绘自己记忆中的文革故事与经历是朱伟的作品不同于概念化和口号式的“政治波谱”的地方。所以,他的作品看起来还传达出在特定历史时期的真实的而温暖的“人性”光芒。 而这种在文革中滋生的并非“抽象的人性”对于亲身经历者是可以感受,概括和传达的; 但对于那些处于隔岸观火的人用理性的普遍的人性观点显然难以体味朱伟作品中传达出的这样难能可贵的“人性”。这种对自己生命经历的肯定态度显然不同于那些口号式的泛意识形态化作品。 


虽然朱伟的许多作品都是关于中国社会主义和文革的记忆,是存留在他脑海中对社会主义时期的印象,在某种程度上是他这一代人对于既往生活的追忆。虽然在西方人的眼中,文革是残暴的,血腥的,社会主义中国是专制的残忍的和非人道的,所以也就出现了迎合西方对社会主义中国想象的部分当代中国艺术图象。 但仍然有朱伟这样遵循自己感觉的艺术家将自己所经历的社会主义中国的经验提炼为艺术经验。应该说,这两方面的经验都有真实性的一面,只是后者更为个人化,显得有血有肉,是一种可以反复回味的人生经验和心理历程。 

上面从作品内容上大致谈了一般的西方人对朱伟作品的理解的偏差,下面再说说朱伟的第二个困惑。这个困惑来自于本土,是对他作品语言的认识问题。在一般人眼中,当代艺术只包括油画,摄影,雕塑,装置,电脑艺术等,与中国的传统艺术媒介没有缘分。一些用传统水墨画和书法做当代艺术实验的创新也落得双重边缘化的境地,正统的传统国画和当代艺术主流都没有认真接纳实验性的水墨画。而朱伟所使用的是比水墨画更为传统的工笔画手法, 因为工笔画在传统国画/水墨画领域比起写意水墨更是边缘化的,甚至有匠人之嫌。因此,从工笔画到当代先锋艺术,其间似乎风马牛不相及。但朱伟却从工笔性水墨画入手,走出了自己的当代艺术之路。这个例子可以说明当代艺术的在观念层面的可适应性和中国传统艺术的开放性,只要不用故步自封的眼光将艺术从观念到技法都格式化。 



在我看来,中国传统绘画中的没骨工笔画比写意水墨画更容易进入当代艺术领域。首先是因为写意画已经形成了非常规范的手法,格式和套路,以及审美规范,传统思维的惯性很重,而且这个领域有众多的名家大师把持着,其次,写意水墨画在今日的中国已经被商业化腐蚀掉,产生着大量的艺术垃圾,败坏了水墨画的名誉与身份,最后,水墨画的随机性,偶然性和即兴式的情绪性和游戏性特征与建筑在理性精神之上当代文明社会属性有明显的不兼容性。而工笔画在这三个方面有着自己的优势,尤其是在最后一点上。 因为工笔画在技术手法上的理性色彩,可以促使艺术家进行大量的有效的技术积累并形成自己的制作经验,从而提炼出自己独特的艺术风貌。 









首次刊发于比利时J.Bastien Art2007年出版《朱伟》,第2-5页

张朝晖, 1965年生于河北,在北京长大。 1988年在天津南开大学获得学士学位,1995年北京中国艺术研究院艺术硕士(导师水天中先生), 1998年纽约巴德学院获得艺术策展学硕士学位。1998-1992年在北京中国美术馆从事艺术理论研究,1999-2000在深圳何香凝美术馆任策划部主任。2002年创建北京犀锐艺术中心,任首任总监。现在中央美术学院院长潘公凯教授指导下攻读博士学位,香港亚洲艺术文献中心研究员。 他策划的展览包括《天地之际:徐冰与蔡国强》(1998, 纽约),《从中国出发》(1999, 北京),《艺术大餐》(2000, 北京),《重力庭园》(2000,深圳),《○℃计划》(2001, 北京),〈面对脸〉(2002, 北京),〈新都市主义〉(2002, 广州), 《被制造的快乐》(2003 北京), 《电子城市的生活》(2003 多伦多)。 《亚洲艺术的现代化》(2003,汉城),《雌雄胴体》(2003 北京),〈活色声香:大都市的新生活〉(2003 北京CBD建外SOHO开街庆典)等。其中〈新都市主义〉被千龙网站和世纪艺术网评选为2002年度最受欢迎的展览。 另外, 大量中英文艺术写作发表在近年的主要艺术刊物上, 例如〈江苏画刊〉,《艺术当代》,《现代艺术》,《今日先锋》,《读书》,〈美术馆〉等中文杂志,以及《亚太艺术》(Art AsiaPacific),〈亚洲艺术新闻〉(Asia Art News) 等。出版物有《杜尚》,《劳申伯格》,《西方艺术与性文化》,《文化与道德》,〈技术化艺术〉,〈艺术大展时代〉,等。