SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST PUBLICATION
LX No. 135
is a huge space between the lives of average people and the lives of the
of the pictures (right)
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)
soldier turned artist Zhu Wei brings Chinese leaders down to earth with
his woodblock prints, writes Craig Simons
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".
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.
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.
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.
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
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,"
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
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".
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.