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A SOUTH MORNING POST PUBLICATION Sunday Morning Post 香港《南华早报》星期天早报

Vol. LX No.135

May 16 2004 二零零四年五月十六日



Sunday Morning Post

Vol. LX No. 135

May 16, 2004


Illustration in middle:

"There is a huge space between the lives of average people and the lives of the politically powerful"


Illustration of the pictures (right)

Works by Zhu Wei from his latest show include Woodblock #8 (far left), a portrait of Deng Xiaoping, and images of nurses during last year’s Scars outbreak in Beijing (left)


Party animal

By Craig Simons


Former soldier turned artist Zhu Wei brings Chinese leaders down to earth with his woodblock prints, writes Craig Simons



Zhu Wei, a 38-year-old Beijing-based painter, sculptor and print maker, is a product of two different periods of Chinese history. The first is the Cultural Revolution. Zhu was born in Beijing in 1966, and he grew up among the tumult of Red Guard marches and political purges. The massive iconographic images of Mao Zedong were everywhere. "I didn’t understand the Culture Revolution," he says, "But of course it changed my life." After joining the Young Pioneers, the Communist Party’s youth organization, and then becoming a soldier, he realized in China "politics colors everything".


In 1982, he joined the People’s Liberation Army, where he served as an artist and soldier for nearly a decade. When his unit was decommissioned in the early 1990s, he studied art at the Beijing Film Academy, before opening a studio near Beijing University. This was the second period of his artistic life. While other former military artists have continued to earn livings glorifying the state, Zhu’s work is intensely personal and indirectly political.


This week, 20 new woodblock prints Zhu made during a residency at Singapore’s Tyler Print Institute were unveiled at Hong Kong’s Plum Blossoms Gallery, which has just published a 400-page hardback catalogue of Zhu’s work.


For the show - his fourth at the gallery - Zhu has steered away from the iconographic images of Mao that permeated in his earlier work. Woodblock #8, a profile of Deng Xiaoping, shows the former leader with his eyes tightly closed and his mouth agape, like a beached fish. In Woodblock #1, a sleeping cadre provides vivid contrast to the daily-life images that make up the rest of the exhibit: a carp, an ox, a stony-faced worker. "Artists should express their passions," Zhu says. "It is irresponsible to paint just landscapes and portraits." He began to paint images of Party leaders and heroic icons with a touch of sarcasm in the mid-1990s. The images of leaders - from Mao to Lenin - in his works are unanimously solemn and removed, a distinct divergence from the benevolent aspects applied to the men by less critical artists.


His China China, two 58cm bronze statues if identical eyeless Chinese men staring skywards as if in reverence to some higher, possibly celestial, being, are at once hopeful and pathetic, the image of subservience. Such tongue-in-cheek works have led to his classification, along with Beijing painter Fang Lijun, as a "cynical realist".


Zhu’s images of somber leaders and sleeping cadres stand out even more because his works of everyday life often reveal dumb awe. His 2002 ink drawing Utopia #45 shows two men with gaping mouths and wide-open eyes that capture the hope and fear of the changing nation. "When people come to China, they immediately realize that there is a huge space between the lives of average people and the live of the politically powerful," he says.


If politics has shaped Zhu’s work, so has China’s classical tradition. When Zhu studied at the People’s Liberation Art College in the late 1980s, he focused on perfecting his ink washes, a technique first popularized by Taoist artists in the fourth and fifth centuries. Ink and color paintings, often made on scrolls, emphasize the dominance of nature and leave blank areas to provoke viewers into contemplative thoughts.


In Zhu’s 2003 ink wash, The Heavenly Maiden Scattering Flowers #9, Zhu toys with that aesthetic. In the painting, eight young men crowd around the bottom of the canvas and look skyward into an ephemeral swirl of blues and reds, leaving the viewer to speculate what, if anything, they are contemplating. According to Zhu’s website, the work explores "feelings of being a remote witness to suffering".


Zhu’s woodblock prints also draw on tradition. Chinese artisans have been printing from hand carved wooden blocks for more than a millennium. During the 1930s and 40s, the fledgling Communist Party adopted woodblock printing fro propaganda purposes, since the required tools - wood, a knife, paper and ink - could be found almost everywhere. Artists educated at the Party’s Lu Xun Art College in Yan’an turned out hundreds of works with titles such as Delivering Food Aid in a Newly Liberated Area and Moving Mountains with One Heart. By focusing on mundane objects, and by stripping the heroic vestiges from his images of cadres and leaders, Zhu reclaims the medium. "Art should not be subject to a single politics," he says.


Another advantage of printing from wood blocks is that Zhu can charge less for his works. His paintings - which have shown in New York, Los Angeles and Paris - have sold for as much as $100,000 and are well out of the reach of amateur collectors. But because he makes between six and 30 prints of each work, they’re more affordable, at about $23,500.


"Hopefully," he says, "more people will be able to collect them," Zhu says he particularly hopes he’ll be able to build a bigger following in Hong Kong and the mainland, where people might identify more strongly with his ideas. "If you look at my art," he says, "you know immediately that I am Chinese."


For this show, viewers won’t find clues only in the traditional techniques and the references to Chinese leaders. Zhu’s favorite woodblock prints show Beijing residents wearing facemasks to prevent Sars. "Sars was the most interesting thing that happened last year," he says.


For an artist who built his reputation examining the division between the state and society, the moment was illuminating. For once, people weren’t looking up in dumb awe, and the leaders were listening.














在这个展览上- 也是他在万玉堂第四次个展- 朱伟告别了渗透于他早期作品中的毛(泽东)形象。木刻版画#8,一幅邓小平的肖像。而在木刻版画#1中,一个打瞌睡的官员则与展览上其他作品所反映的日常生活形象- 一条鲤鱼,一头牛,一个面无表情的工人- 形成鲜明对比。“艺术家应该表达他们的激情,”朱伟说,“光画风景或肖像是不负责任的。”他在九十年代中期开始用挖苦的笔触刻画党的领导人和英雄偶像的形象。在他的作品中领导人的形象- 从毛(泽东)到列宁- 都是无一例外地庄严且遥不可及的,与不那么尖刻的美术家描绘的这些领导人慈祥的一面截然相反。 





朱伟的版画同样借鉴传统。中国艺人用手工雕刻的木版印刷已有超过千年的历史。在19301940年代初出茅庐的共产党人采用木刻版画作为宣传手段,因为所需之材料- 木头、刻刀、纸、墨- 在任何地方都可找到。在延安鲁迅艺术学院受教育的美术家们创作了成百幅作品,如“在解放区送粮”和“万众一心,愚公移山”。通过对平凡人物的刻画,及脱去领导者和官员身上的光环,朱伟重新利用了这一媒介。“艺术不应受制于一种政治,”他说。 

另一个木刻版画的优势是朱伟的作品可以便宜一点。他的绘画- 在纽约、洛杉矶、巴黎都有展出- 已卖到十万港币一幅,远远超过了业余收藏者的承受范围。但因他的每一幅版画都印六到三十张,它们的价格更便宜,大约23,500港币一张。