L'OFFICIEL Art April 2013 Exclusive Artist Interview
Zhu Wei: A Nongovernmental New Ink Painting Painter
Article by Wang Xiaomeng
Photograph by Shang Shang
Introduction: He is one of the pioneers in exploring contemporary ink painting as well as one of the artists who first signed with international art galleries. Out of love for movies, he attended three different kinds of art academies during his youth. Fond of traditional ink painting, he also holds a passion for rock music. He is the only “out-of-office” artist focused on ink painting creation. Though these seem conflicting, Zhu Wei has been seeking independence all his way.
Grown in the 1980s
Born in Beijing in 1966, Zhu Wei is one typical member of the generation grown up in Beijing’s courtyards or Hutong with both of his parents being soldiers. His background makes people easily think of Wang Shuo or Cui Jian who went through “the Cultural Revolution”, faced up to the radical changes brought about by the reform and opening up, and made the “voice” of the people in the 1980s heard amid a turbulent society, thus creating a unique “legend” of their age. Zhu Wei mentioned little about his experience, but he is quite reminiscent of the “passion-burning” 1980s. For him, that’s a period full of masters. A great number of talents sprung up in all walks of life such as poetry, movie, music, fine arts and even real estate both in China and the West. Take rock music, Zhu Wei’s favorite hobby, for example, many brands came to their fame in the 1980s. It’s them who constituted the staunch force for various industries.
In that era of free thoughts, people concentrated on “people” itself. Back then, every people claimed to be educated talks about Nietzsche, Sartre or Beauvoir even at dinner, Zhu Wei said. “It’s just like today’s enthusiasm on money. People are all into it.” This environment provided people with opportunities to express themselves. Starting from self-formation, people gradually came to independence. If we say the 1980s left people a huge fortune, then people’s wakening is definitely the most precious one.
From Ink Painting to Movie
Zhu Wei’s family didn’t support him learning painting at the very beginning, thinking he was not born to do that. However, Zhu Wei persisted. He finally chose to learn ink painting, since oil painting costs more. “I would go to a normal university if they receive applicants, because they charge students no fees.” He added.
Zhu Wei went to Beijing Film Academy to learn Film Arts after his graduation from Art College of the Chinese People s Liberation Army. “I painted ink painting all those years and it had nothing to do with Film Arts.” he said. Nevertheless, he went to learn filmology at Chinese National Academy of Arts out of his increasing passion for movies. “I felt unrecognized whatever I do. I didn’t get the sense of satisfaction when I studied painting, so I turned to movies and studied another three years.” Zhu Wei said sarcastically. Later, he realized that he can’t master the art of movie after shooting some small scale ones, so he devoted himself all to paintings again. We could see the idealism and boldness of that generation through reviewing this period.
That experience, however, enabled Zhu Wei to view painting from a different angle and even deduce the principles of painting from movies, which is his greatest gains. Meanwhile, he never quit painting during his study of movies and gradually found the advantage of ink painting—the quality can be judged all by himself. Unlike oil painting or installation, whose qualities require the judgement from foreign critics and curators. Ink painting is completely Chinese stuff. “Who needs foreigners to teach Chinese to play Ping-pong?”
Not a Single Day at Office
In critics’ words, Zhu Wei is the first artist who introduced fine brush techniques into contemporary Chinese art category. Also, he is one of the first group of artists who won recognition of the international art circles and represented by commercial art galleries.
Upon graduation from Beijing Film Academy in 1993, he signed contracts with an art gallery, becoming a professional artist without a single day going to an office. Zhu Wei told us that he met the boss of Plum Blossom, a Hong-Kong based art gallery at his solo exhibition, and the boss bought all his works and brought them to exhibit abroad. Unexpectedly, his works were sold out all together and two collectors even almost went into a fight since they both favored the same piece of work. Their quarrel finally settled after the art gallery promised them that Zhu Wei will create more works and the art gallery will continue to cooperate with him. So Zhu Wei was immediately found in Beijing and asked to sign contracts with the gallery.
Since then, Zhu Wei lived a stable life. “My salary was assured since that very year”, he said. He recalled that the art gallery paid him dollars and he got them exchanged every three months. The exchange rate used to be 1:14 and later 1:12. “It felt different when I earned dollars”. His cooperation with Plum Blossom lasted a long time until 2005, for him, “It’s similar to state-run companies. You state your annual plans, finish your paintings and earn salary. You can freely paint whatever you like.” Back then, however, the communication technology was backward, they can only communicate with the art gallery through fax without a computer. That’s what their real situations were though it seems troublesome now.
An “Out-of-Office” Artist
For today’s contemporary Chinese art—be it oil painting, installation, sculptor or behavior, including “F4”, 90% of the great artists are “out-of-office”—neither at school nor art academy. But surprisingly to Zhu Wei, these renowned contemporary ink painting artists of his age almost all work at school or art academy. He is an exception, never joining any association or group.
In Zhu Wei’s perspective, contemporary ink painting needs to survive in the first place since China didn’t prove to be a good market. He stressed more about independence though his contracts with art gallery guaranteed him a cozy life. “Art needs to be independent so as to in turn lead to free will and creation.” He never admired those government subsidized artists and all he’s been trying to keep is his independence. Artists used to survive with government support, but now with market economy booming since the reform and opening up, they can totally survive with their works. Fortunately, Zhu Wei was born in this age. Every thing or every encounter in his every day life was to prove the independence of artists—be yourself no matter what others may say in both life and creation, which is also one of the most precious gifts given by the age of the1980s.
This Ink Painter is also a Rock Music Fan
Traditional ink painting and modern rock music mixed well in Zhu Wei’s life. Speaking of the 1980s and rock music, we can’t miss Cui Jian. In fact, in his early works, there were pentagram, red flag, army hat and even lyrics from Cui Jian’s songs. It’s rather a common memory and cry out of social transformation and thought liberalization than a coincidence. This later led to their cooperation.
In 1995, the painting album of his exhibition held abroad spread home and Zhu Wei’s girlfriend happened to see it. And then Cui Jian began to look for Mr. Zhu to design his band logo. However, without phones back then, Cui Jian didn’t find him after half a year’s searching and even doubted whether he is in Beijing or not until one day they met at a famous rock music spot at Sanlitun. During their conversation, Cui Jian told Zhu Wei that his paintings have a taste of rock music which makes him relieved and unexpectedly happy because he’s always worried about his ink painting not being “contemporary”. They became friends since then and later Zhu Wei designed a huge act-drop for Cui Jian and it accompanied his many tour shows.
Now, Zhu Wei has plenty of opportunities to go abroad and thus has more opportunities to watch shows of famous foreign bands besides collecting records. He watched shows by Coldplay and the “Eagle” band not long ago and we could still sense his excitement. The “creasiest” thing for him was to fly to Shanghai to attend Rolling Stone’s show, deserting the opening ceremony of his solo exhibition in 2006. It’s this kind of craziness and obsession that made ink painting and rock music blend so well in him.
Ink Painting’s New Era
There’s almost no room left to develop ink painting’s techniques, Zhu Wei once said. It’s about 2,700 or 2,800 years old and just like an adult, for whom whatever should be done was done. It may put ink and wash painters in a passive position, but Zhu Wei considers that ink painting will weigh greater than oil painting over another decades or 100 years if you get focused on it. Because it enjoys thousands of years of history, while oil painting has only gone through 700 years and it wasn’t introduced to China until the recent over 100 years. Today, oil painting receives wider attention since westerners’ art theories are about opera, movie, drama, classic ballad and oil painting, but totally left Chinese oil painting neglected, meanwhile we don’t have theory researchers specifically on contemporary ink painting, so Chinese ink painting has no room for development in both technique and theory. As an old saying goes—rescued from desperation, it will outperform contemporary art with little novelty, since it is born domestically.
The development of ink painting, however, must root in a strong culture. Zhu Wei still vividly remembers his first exhibition held abroad during which he was asked to write an article about his creations, from classical music to rock music, Zhu Wei wrote a lot and summarized his essay saying to spread Chinese culture while that was the only sentence deleted. He came to his senses later: why would they help you promote Chinese ink painting? They came to earn money. They will cherish your culture only when you get strong enough. When Mac Donald first came to China, some young couple went there to get married. That’s the same thing about culture, Zhu Wei recalled. Ink painting will strengthen its position when general public do not admire western culture that much and our country gets more stable because we are the ones to set standards.