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ASIAN ART NEWS 香港《亚洲艺术新闻》

Volume 6 Number 5

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1996 一九九六年九/十月刊


ASIAN ART NEWS        Volume 6 Number 5      September/October 1996

Illustration in the first page under the picture:

Zhu Wei, China Jazz, No.7, no date given, ink on paper, 62 x 63 cm. all photographs: courtesy of Plum Blossoms (International) Ltd., Hong Kong.  

Illustration for the two pictures on the top of the second page:

Zhu Wei, Dream of the Butterfly, No.2, no date given, ink and color on paper, 66.5 x 66 cm.

Zhu Wei, The Square, No.8, 1995, ink and color on paper, 129 x 131 cm.

Illustration for the picture at the bottom of the second page:

Zhu Wei, China Diary, No.18, no date to given, ink and color on paper, 130 x 130 cm.

Illustration for the picture in the third page:

Zhu Wei, Story of Letting Go, No.7, no date given, ink and color on paper, 66 x 88 cm.

World Within, World Without

By Karen Smith

Zhu Wei’s paintings are an idiosyncratic vision of China’s social and political life.

Painter Zhu Wei lives in a small apartment on the fringes of Beijing, the city where he was born and bred. Despite the general problems in finding housing in Beijing for those without the statutory work unit, the peripheral location is no fated make-do. It is a clear choice for a painter who sees himself as being quite different from other young contemporary artists who have come to the fore in China since the early 1990s. Zhu Wei was “born out of time” although he’s not entirely clear about how this would have otherwise affected his art except for suggesting that a decade later and he would probably have been a musician. His main rub with the present is the association of his work with the era of political pop which developed at the end of the 1980s. This is the main reason why Zhu Wei believes he is so misunderstood. As a loner who largely prefers his own company, he does not like being aligned with any school of painting or painted images. The fact that this occurs lies at the root of his reticence, a verbal plaint against his current success that is aimed at the foundation upon which that success has been built in foreign eyes.

In his article on Zhu Wei’s solo exhibition at Hong Kong’s Plum Blossoms gallery earlier this year, Gunalan Nadarajan said, “[Zhu Wei] claims his works have neither political nor intent. However, in his presentation of the political leaders and ideologues of China, it is difficult to resist such of reading.” In one way Nadarajan is right, but to succumb to the temptation of that reading is to take the easy way of viewing Zhu Wei’s art, the instant that one satisfies - or gratifies - all preconceptions of what young Chinese artists must be dealing with at the present time in the present climate. Such preconceptions with regards to China are now well-established, ingrained in most visions of China, and people have become comfortable with them. Contradictions disturb Zhu Wei’s art, which is the logical progression of Chinese traditional ink figure painting, contains recognizable forms, settings that speak of a stage primed for action, the props minimal or given undue emphasis. The idea of a narrative is implicit, more so when the painter explains that scenes and titles from classical and contemporary literature, film, and music are often used as springboard for compositions. There are clearly tales being told here.

In talking about himself and his painting, Zhu Wei is contradictory. He says he detests people writing about his art, that he is not an “artist” but a painter and he cannot emphasize enough that his work is not political in initial concept. Yet, at the same time, he readily admits that to date, with independence born of success, with two beautiful catalogues of his work to his name, he is greatly satisfied with what he has achieved. So much so that he sees no further need for publicity which he described to me bluntly as being “a waste of paper.” Refusal to be classified suggests a certain element of paranoia at work here, an understandable fear of being labeled, categorized, natural under the circumstances, and a signifier of the time in which Zhu Wei was born.

In his paintings, Zhu Wei offers us a cartoon comic strip vision of his life. They do not form an illustrative blow-by-blow account as documentary, but are the commentary and reflections of a retiring young painter with a wryly creative imagination. Perhaps the titles China Diary and Beijing Story he gives for various series of his paintings are misleading for the words imply the kind of China watching carried out by Sinologists around the world, and thus political or economic concerns. These painted images are more a “Zhu Wei Diary” that draws almost entirely on personal experiences for inspiration via which the world outside is afforded a vision of the world Zhu Wei inhabits. These paintings are given a special distinction by virtue of Beijing executed in traditional Chinese ink and wash, painted flat on the floor of his studio on broad expanses of paper that almost entirely cover the floor space. Comparing himself to a teenager doodling for pleasure, there are also small works, tall and narrow works, which are almost more inviting, more private and more expressive by virtue of their scale.

In his studio, completed or working paintings cover the walls. Music is a constant accompaniment to his artistic activity, and postcards and photographs of bands, himself, and those sent from friends abroad are the only concessions to decoration. And the curtains which are designed to keep out the light. This stark, yet focused space is the physical extension of Zhu Wei himself.

I began somewhat cautiously asking Zhu Wei to explain his approach to painting, the techniques he uses, his artistic concerns, I was not surprised when he replies “I never tell people how I paint, nor about any techniques I use.” There was a pause before he added, “I think it would be better if we talk about something other than art.” The reason he gave is that art alone is too dry and uninteresting. He reminded me that for all of the two years I have known him, we have never talked about art. This is true, for he usually steers the conversation to film, books, or music which was the first passion of his life. His relatively recent friendship with Cui Jian is one of the biggest gratifications of his art for it was his paintings that brought the two together and led to Zhu Wei to create the massive 19 by 10 meter backdrop which Cui Jian now uses for all the band’s performances, of which he is particularly proud. Nothing could have pleased Zhu Wei more than Cui Jian telling him that his paintings “had music in them.”

“I always wanted to play music but it was not possible when I was young,” he said, “I had no money to buy a guitar. Now I’m too old, it’s too late. I was just born at the wrong time. In my next life perhaps.” The association between the two, music and painting, inspired such works as China Diary No.16 (the image of the blindfold was used by Cui Jian in an MTV video in 1995) and The Square No.9. “So little of the art being made in China right now really reflects life in China in this age. That’s why I have such respect for Cui Jian. What he says very precisely reflects our situation, he expresses what people are feeling. This is what I want to capture in my work.”

Despite all the advances, all the trade, all the new and foreign products, the flashy cars, the bars and the tremendous upswing in the lifestyle of people in the big cities, that make these cities seem like cities the world over, this is still China. Nationalism is more widespread than in almost any other country in the world. To talk about life within such a society is to enter a complex minefield of interlinked components. This we can all appreciate, but there are many aspects of life in China that are so nuanced as to be virtually invisible to outsiders. It is a mistake, however, to believe that because people are hard to see they do not exist. The irony is contained in the phrase “…with Chinese characteristics” that is much used these days. Defining these characteristics is a problem for the preconceptions are a barrier that is hard to challenge.

“From what I’ve seen written about my works so far, I don’t think people really understand what I’m doing.” is Zhu Wei’s comments. “They are too ready to see nothing more than a political stance. How can I argue against that? There are images of PLA soldiers, famous historical / political faces, and on occasion a definite satire, but more important I paint my own world, my own experiences. I was in the army for ten years. That was a big chunk of my life and naturally left a deep impression. But you only have to open your eyes on any street in Beijing, read the papers, watch TV, to see that I’m not painting anything that isn’t there for those who choose to see it.”

Herein lies the difficulty of seeing Zhu Wei’s work as anything other than a continuation of the role of the literati in Chinese society. This is the tradition of the recluse executing beautiful images that actually express dissatisfaction with the society from which he deliberately withdraws. Zhu Wei has not taken to any mountain, for the city and the life it contains is the source of all his characters. The exaggerated forms in Zhu Wei’s painting, the caricatures, the expressions and the incongruous mixtures of forms, eras and appearances are bizarre but they are not entirely contrived for it is possible to witness something akin to them all in a day’s trip around the capital. Take works such as those in the Box series and the China Diary series, for example. But beyond that, there is satirical comment of the most biting and direct kind, found in such works as The Story of Beijing No.19 (1993), the series New Positions of the Brocade Battle, the Tightrope series, contained between the words and the subtle arrangement of the composition.

The more one looks at the paintings, the more one can see of Zhu Wei himself, represented in uniform amongst the ballooned figures with the thick lips and pinprick eyes that have become his distinctive style. Despite the poses, the stances, there is an emptiness, a blank enclosing the drilled-in actions and an air of despondency. Naturally, the smiles here have to be those of cynicism for they don’t come from the heart, from real happiness. “Ever since (current) artists discovered that they could criticize society in paint, everybody’s been doing it without any rationale. An artist has to have an individual identity. [In art now] you see all these inane smiles, but anyone who lives in China knows that Chinese people don’t smile very much. It’s a struggle to get by everyday. While the smiles may make people aware of the lack of real smiles in life, I find them empty, ugly, full of underlying hatred. While my work may be cynical, it is not angry, it is not born of animosity.”

On that point we must agree. I do not feel Zhu Wei paints from hatred or if he does it is so deeply veiled in color and wry humor as to glide past the unsuspecting eye. Zhu Wei believes that he still has some way to go before he achieves the clarity or immediacy of expression he’s after and in seeking to learn more from the world he begins a degree in literature - classical Chinese and contemporary Western - this autumn. “I’m slow to think through ideas, and a slow painter. Often others come out with things that I would have said myself eventually - at times, ideas do emerge simultaneously with others. Perhaps that’s why people draw parallels between my work and others”, “That only means my language is still weak, that I haven’t yet found the best way - I’m certainly not satisfied with my painting. That’s why I decided to study literature. I want to learn more about people but to go back to an academy would not help me. I have no problem with technique - I have learned all that academies here have to teach - but people who write use just a few words to bring a character to life. Their language is already far more sophisticated than current painting. I want to learn from them.”

Whatever Zhu Wei may feel, his paintings are successful because they are so very much of their time. They evoke both the new tide of life in China and the mysterious aura of the “olds”, that classical side that was known to the outside world before China closed her doors. Yet these paintings hinge on those glimpses of the world within China that China herself afforded the world in the years of closure. This fascinates us. Of course, we could simply say that Zhu Wei is technically an extraordinary artist of singular vision who would produce such images even if no one was looking as he was before he was first discovered.


香港《亚洲艺术新闻》19969/ 10月号    

























在这一点上我们必须同意。我不觉得朱伟靠仇恨画画,或者就算他是,那仇恨也深深地隐藏在作品的色彩和毫无怀疑的眼光中一闪即逝的挪揄讽刺中。朱伟相信他离透彻而直接的表达能力还有段距离,为了充实自己他这个秋季开始修习中国古汉语和西方现代文学的课程。“我思路很慢,画画也慢。经常我跟别人同时有一个想法,别人已经做出来了我还没说出来。也许这就是为什么有人说我模仿别人的作品。这也恰恰说明我的表现能力还弱,我还没能找到最好的方式- 我当然对我的画还不满意。所以我才决定学习文学。我希望增加对人的认识,所以再回到学院去对我没什么帮助。我在技法上已没什么问题 - 学院能教得我都已经会了 - 但文学家能用寥寥几笔就把人物描写得活灵活现。他们的表达技巧已远远超出当前绘画的水平。我要跟他们学习。”