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ASIAWEEK 香港英文《亚洲周刊》

Volume 27 Number 5

February 9 2001 二零零一年二月九日刊



Illustration for the picture in the first page:

Speculative The Story of Beijing, No.25

Illustration for Zhu’s picture:

Unbending "I don’t create art to gain the admiration of patrons," said Zhu. "I think that kind of artist is a fraud."

Illustration for the two pictures in the last page:

Face-Off Sunflowers, No.47, top and Descended from the Red Flag, No.5

The Soldier and the Citadel

By Crystyl Mo

Punky Hailed in Hong Kong and Singapore, political pop artist Zhu has no idea why people like his art.

Listen up! Avant-garde artist Zhu Wei has captured an army of fans in Asia. Now he's set to take on New York. Does Zhu care? Not a bit


Stephen McGuinness was bored stiff. For hours he had been perusing row after monotonous row of traditional bird and flower scrolls at the China Art Expo in Guangzhou. He had all but given up hope of finding any compelling work for his Hong Kong and Singapore galleries. Then McGuinness stumbled upon the stall of a little-known Beijing painter. With his baggy pants, unlaced combat boots and shaven head, the former People's Liberation Army soldier looked more like a punk than an artist - but that didn't diminish the force of his paintings. They were both political and social, almost eerie, tragi-comic portraits of life in China. Thrilled, McGuinness bought all the pieces for about $150 each. "I was so excited I couldn't stop talking about him," he says. That was seven years ago.

These days the punk, 34-year-old Zhu Wei, is rapidly becoming one of the most famous of China's hot young avant-garde artists. At Zhu's 2000 exhibition for McGuinness' Plum Blossoms gallery in Hong Kong, paintings nearly flew off the walls at $40,000 for the largest works. Buyers have sometimes almost come to blows over the right to own his colorful images of alienation in China. Now, Zhu and his patron are taking on the world's most vibrant art market, New York. Plum Blossoms is due to open a branch on West 25th Street by April - a reaction to burgeoning demands for contemporary Chinese art - and Zhu will be a leader among the gallery's featured artists. "These {Chinese} artists are going through the same things the Americans were going through at the beginning of the century: economic change, political change," says Howard Farber, president of China Avant-Garde, a New York Internet gallery and art advisor for serious collectors. "{In art,} the 20th century belonged to the U.S. The 21st is going to belong to China."

Over the past decade, a wave of avant-garde Chinese artists has made fortunes from art works that are often highly political. Their images satirize China's socialist rituals, corrupt officials and the deification of Mao Zedong. Zhu's work, too, plays with socialist themes: in one series, for example, rows of alienated men in Mao suits, staring into oblivion, march past an open window. The avant-garde works, often referred to as Political Pop, have sparked a debate in the art world: Is it great art or just political gimmickry? Says Christina Chu, chief curator of the Hong Kong Museum of Art: "We are really outgrowing our curiosity about the Political Pop movement."

Zhu, however, insists his art isn't about politics - and it's definitely not about selling paintings. In fact, he's totally surprised by his own popularity. "I don't have a clue why people like my art," he says. "The first time I saw the prices being paid, I couldn't believe it." Stubborn and independent, he admits to being pleased that people enjoy his work. But he refuses to be influenced by collectors' tastes. "I don't create art to gain the admiration of patrons," he says. "I think that kind of artist is a fraud." Showing up at the Hong Kong gallery for Asiaweek's photographer in old sweatpants and a T-shirt, Zhu refuses to compromise, even for a camera. "There is nothing to smile about," he explains. "When I smile I feel uncomfortable. It's even worse than crying." Though he takes creative inspiration from such varied sources as Iranian films and the darkly comic novels of Czech EmigrE Milan Kundera, Zhu feels he's far from achieving mastery of his subject. "I am not radical enough in my work," he says. "My inhibitions have made me too passive."

To fans, however, Zhu's work is innovative, provocative and politically explosive. Zhu's art "{challenges} the cultural hegemony of the Party with criticism and indifference," wrote Asian art critic Jeffrey Hantover in 1994. Zhu's early work combines a traditional inkwash technique with modern subjects, drawing on the movements of Political Pop and Cynical Realism. Both styles emerged in the mid-1980s as commentary - often satirical or ironic - on China's revolutionary political changes and the sudden rise of consumerism. In Zhu's paintings, soldiers, political figures and even giant vegetables are painstaking rendered in an ancient technique that literally translates as "meticulous brushwork." A frail-looking Deng is portrayed with closed eyes and an enfeebled expression. Mao grins relentlessly, also with eyes shut. PLA officers appear frequently, and in a reworking of a famous Song dynasty painting of children playing, Zhu substitutes Coca-Cola cans for toys. The poem inscribed on the original painting is replaced by a Mao propaganda verse, written during the Great Leap Forward.

Zhu's work seems to reflect the alienation he has experienced in his own life. Born in 1966, he grew up amid the political hysteria of the Cultural Revolution. During the frenzy of class warfare, self-criticism and Mao fanaticism, Zhu's parents, both doctors, had little time to care for him. At 16, Zhu joined the army and stayed for a decade. He was demobilized in 1992 after receiving a degree from the PLA Art Academy.

But Zhu refuses to be cubbyholed as a political artist. To him, the images simply reflect the life he knows. He says the PLA soldiers represent everyman. He insists he is not portraying some kind of unique, satirical analysis of modern China. "If you look carefully at Chinese society, you would see my paintings only reflect reality," Zhu says. Indeed, many paintings appear to be autobiographical. The shaved head and large lips of many of his characters recall the artist himself. In his Tightrope series, a big-headed kid, sometimes with tears in his eyes, balances on a skinny rope. Zhu reveals that he was taunted for his big head as a child "My grandmother would push on my forehead every day before I went to school because all the other kids teased me," he recalls.

Do Zhu's indirect, nonpolitical comments suggest that he is afraid of Beijing's censors? "No artist can blame their own limitations on their environment," he says. "As a matter of fact, tension and friction in society are actually helpful to an artist, they provoke you to create." Politics aside, Zhu's persistent signature theme is the wide, vacant eyes of his figures. In his world, men, women, children - even fish - bear witness to their surroundings with a disconcerting, lidless stare. His foray into fiberglass sculpture last year gave birth to slyly humorous figures that are a modern play on the Qin dynasty terracotta warriors. Instead of military garb and proud upright posture, Zhu's characters sport Mao suits and tilt forward at an angle, implying a bow of extreme deference. The precarious slant might also suggest an imminent full-frontal crash-landing. Eminent Beijing art critic Jia Fangzhou is struck by Zhu's work, but also by his personal intensity. "His eyes reveal the untamed recalcitrance of a renegade," Jia wrote in last year's Plum Blossoms publication, Zhu Wei Diary. In the same book, fellow critic Hantover gushed that Zhu's paintings were "radiant with consciousness . . . irreverent and cheeky."

Even critics recognize that Zhu's technique is unusual. His use of traditional media and his "meticulously colorful landscape . . . give him a special appeal," says Hong Kong Museum of Art's Chu. She points in particular to Zhu's early pieces: "There are some raw sentiments there." And though his new work "has calmed down a bit," Chu thinks Zhu will be popular for a while to come. "Many critics feel he has a fetish following," she says.

At Plum Blossoms, Zhu exhibitions are an eagerly anticipated event. "As soon as his new works arrive, some clients come in and buy on the spot," reports marketing manager Mami Shinozaki. "If the new works are not available because they are being mounted, sometimes people will buy after just looking at a snapshot." Owner McGuinness is the first to admit that marketing and public relations play critical roles in artists' popularity - and their steadily rising value. The gallery is also convinced that Zhu will take off in New York, where he has already made some impact. Next month he will be represented for the fifth consecutive year at the International Asian Art Fair. Last year three sets of fiberglass sculptures were sold for $20,000 each. One set was snapped up by a trustee of the Guggenheim Museum. "This kind of artist is very unusual because he is constantly evolving," says Shinozaki. "He's not a commercial artist. He doesn't do anything he doesn't want to. He knows what he wants. I think artists like him are kind of innocent."

Back in Beijing, Zhu remains careless of opinion. His alienating childhood grew into a solitary adult life. He spends much of his time painting alone in his apartment with the curtains drawn, the lights low and the stereo blasting. A die-hard devotee of rock'n'roll, his favorites include close friend Cui Jian, a Beijing rock star, and Pink Floyd. "My biggest regret," says Zhu, "is that I didn't become a rock musician." He adds that he can't stand to look at his own paintings. His studio walls are bare.

And New York? Typically, Zhu expresses surprise but not delight at the news of Plum Blossoms' new branch. "It's not important to have a lot of Chinese art in the U.S.," he says. "One or two artists is enough - and only if the art is really good, really genuine." His latest series is tentatively based on the Spring Festival. "My art always represents the common people," he says. "That is the most important to me. Spring Festival itself is not important but it becomes meaningful in my art because it is the most cherished holiday of the common people. It represents China."

China Avant-Garde's Farber sees few boundaries and fewer obstacles to a strong U.S. following for Zhu. "I am totally bullish on the contemporary Chinese art market," he says. "I feel that it is barely in its infancy. It's a genre that hasn't even seen the light of day yet." That makes it a risky investment, but one with no small allure. Yet it's not what Zhu is looking for at all. "I wish people would see my works as an emotional investment, not a calculated financial investment," he says. "I place more importance on spiritual things, so I wish that only people who find hope and emotional resonance in my work would think of purchasing them." In the meantime, fans just hope Zhu will keep painting.













斯蒂芬-麦克吉尼斯感到无聊之极。他已在广州中国艺术博览会上聚精会神地看了一排又一排单调乏味的传统花鸟卷轴。他已经彻底放弃了为他在香港和新加坡的画廊找到吸引眼球的作品的希望。就在这时,麦克吉尼斯撞上了一个不知名的北京画家的摊位。肥大的裤子、没系鞋带的战靴、光头的形象使这个退役的解放军士兵看上去更像朋克而不是画家- 但这一点也没有减弱他作品的力量。它们既有政治性又有社会性,几乎可说是中国生活的怪诞、悲喜剧的描绘。欣喜若狂,麦柯吉尼斯以150美金一幅的价格买下了全部的作品。“我兴奋得止不住地谈论他,”麦柯吉尼斯说。那是七年前的事。 

现而今这个当年的朋克,34岁的朱伟,正迅速地成为中国最知名的前卫美术家之一。在2000年麦柯吉尼斯的香港万玉堂画廊举办的朱伟个展上,包括高达四万美金一幅的作品被抢购一空。为能拥有一张他那色彩丰富的表现疏离在中国的图画买家们有时几乎发生肢体冲突。现在,朱伟和他的赞助者正进军全世界最生机勃勃的艺术市场- 纽约。万玉堂正筹备将于四月在西25街开幕的分店- 以回应急剧增长的对中国当代美术的需求- 而朱伟将成为画廊的主打画家。“这些[中国]美术家正经历着美国人在世纪之初经历的同样事情:经济变化和政治变化,”霍华德-法伯说,法伯是纽约网上画廊“中国前卫艺术”的总裁,也是严肃收藏家的艺术顾问。“[艺术在]20世纪属于美国,而21世纪则是中国的。” 


然而朱伟却坚持说他的美术无关政治- 也决不是为了卖画。事实上他对自己的受欢迎程度感到异常惊讶。“我完全没概念他们为什么喜欢我的画,”他说,“第一次看见他们付钱的时候我都不敢相信。”虽然又固执又特立独行,他也承认人们喜欢他的作品他很高兴。但他拒绝被收藏者的品味所影响。“我不为赢得赞助者的赞赏创作艺术,”他说,“我觉得那种艺术家是骗子。”即便是来香港的画廊给亚洲周刊的摄影师拍照,只穿了一条运动裤和T恤衫的朱伟也不肯妥协,对照相机也不。“没什么可笑的,”他解释说,“我笑的时候会觉得不自在,比哭还难看。”尽管朱伟的创作灵感来源广泛,从伊朗电影到米兰-昆德拉的黑色幽默小说,他还是觉得他远远没能驾驭他的题材。“在我的作品里我不够激进,”他说,“我的拘谨使我太被动。” 

然而对他的拥趸来说,朱伟的作品是创新的、煽情的、有爆炸力的。朱伟的早期作品结合了传统的淡墨技法和现代题材,借鉴于政治流行艺术和玩世现实主义运动。此两种风格都出现于八十年代中期- 通常是讥讽的或反讽的- 作为对中国政治剧变和突然泛滥的消费主义的批评。在朱伟的画作里,士兵、政治人物、甚至巨大的蔬菜被精心地呈献于一种古代的“工笔画法”中。邓小平被描画成衰老的,闭着眼睛的,表情无力的样子。毛泽东则不停地龇牙咧嘴笑着,也闭着眼睛。解放军军官经常出现,但画面却改编自一幅著名宋朝群童嬉戏的绘画,朱伟把玩具改成了可口可乐罐。而原画上的题诗则变成了毛在大跃进时写得一首宣传诗。 



朱伟的这些间接的、非政治的评论是否代表他担心北京的审查呢?“没有一个艺术家能够责备他所处环境的限制,”他说,“其实社会的紧张和摩擦对一个艺术家来说是有帮助的,它们激发你的创作欲。”撇开政治不谈,朱伟的作品里反复出现的,带有标识性的主题是那些人物大大的茫然的眼睛。在他的世界里,男人,女人,小孩儿- 甚至是鱼- 都是在用困惑的、目不转睛的凝视见证他们周围的一切。他去年开始尝试玻璃纤维雕塑,诞生了一个个诡异幽默的雕像,仿若现代版秦朝兵马俑。不再是穿军装的立正姿势,他的塑像穿中山装,身体前倾,暗寓极端顺从的鞠躬。这不稳定的倾斜可能也暗指一种迫在眉睫的正面紧急着陆。北京资深美术评论家贾方舟不但被朱伟的作品所震撼,也被他强烈的个性所震撼。“他的眼神流露出一个叛逆者的不羁的桀骜不驯,”贾方舟在万玉堂去年出版的《朱伟日记》中写道。在同一本书中,评论家汉特欧佛惊呼朱伟的作品是“个人意识光芒四射…大不敬和放肆的。” 




纽约呢?果不出所料,朱伟对万玉堂开分店的事表现惊讶而不是高兴。“在美国有多少中国艺术不重要,”他说,“一两个画家足够了- 并且必须作品是真好,是名副其实的。”他的最新作品系列暂定以春节为题材。“我的作品都是描绘普通人的,”他说,“这对我是最重要的。春节本身不重要,但它对我的创作有意义因为它是普通老百姓最喜欢的节日。它能代表中国。”