www.artron.net November 1 2013 Headline
A Series Research on Art People - Zhu Wei: Contemporary Ink and Wash Is Not the Dead-Cat Bounce of Traditional Ink and Wash
[Editor's Note] Without the aid of various Western art languages experimented in turns, when we look at Zhu Wei's ink paintings, we could easily seize his techniques of outlining, drawing, spotting, coloring and shading which are all from ancient China, however, through which a scene of reality comes toward us, and it's a contemporary visual experience that is subtle and restrained, full of the typical Zhu Wei's speculative temperament. The works created by Zhu Wei reveal a strong significance of contemporary and sense of the times, showing the artist's concentration on people's living conditions and his personal experience accumulated from the Chinese cultural landscapes in process. In Zhu Wei's painting series of different periods such as Descended from the Red Flags, Utopia, Beijing Story, Curtain, Vernal Equinox, The Ink and Wash Research Lectures series, the artist used boneless skills on paper which had been antiqued beforehand and produced a strong effect of alienation. By juxtaposing objects of different space and different time in the same picture, his paintings let viewers ponder about our history and reality. On November 3 2013, Zhu Wei's solo exhibition opened in Today Art Museum. This exhibition applied the combination of both his ink paintings over the years and literatures related to these paintings, from which we can observe the reference between the creation of contemporary ink paintings and the development of the times. To know more about this, our Artron reporter interviewed artist Zhu Wei.
The interviewee: Artist Zhu Wei
The Interviewer: Editor-in-Chief (report department of Artron.net) Pei Gang
Pei Gang: The artworks shown in your solo exhibition were created in various time periods. From your point of view, has your creation changed? If so, could you tell us what the changes are?
Zhu Wei: For three decades since 1988, in works such as The Story of Beijing, Sweet Life, Pictures of the Strikingly Bizarre, Vernal Equinox, until latest Hills Beyond A River, The Ink and Wash Research Lectures series I slowly experienced the transforming from narrativity at the beginning to conceptuality at present, which took me almost thirty years. In fact it's the transforming of the whole Chinese society as well, because we common people are not the policymakers, and we could only through the changing phenomenon, a point by a point, one thing after another, then got to understand what the whole routine was, and what were the changes which had already happened, including the changes happened on ourselves.
Pei Gang: What do you think is the fundamental difference between the "contemporary ink and wash" and the traditional ink and wash?
Zhu Wei: Contemporary ink paintings emphasize on contemporary. It's not a dead-cat bounce of traditional ink and wash. It shares a same standard with the contemporary art which is the intervention in real life. This is also a measurement applying to all kinds of contemporary art genres, including literature, drama, music, dancing, movie and television.
Pei Gang: Ink and wash is a medium which contains both "freehand brushwork" and "meticulous brushwork", and you have chosen meticulous brushwork. Is there any special meaning to choose such a medium to depict the reality?
Zhu Wei: Meticulous brushwork is just one step away from artisan painting, which indeed challenges a painter's ability. Some meticulous painters could not or would not face the current situations, and they could not or would not feel the pulse of reality, so they twisted and turned to paint some decorative things. This kind of paintings is, at best, advanced artisan paintings. And it's also one of the reasons why ink painting has been neglected.
Pei Gang: The creation of traditional Chinese painting began with "imitate the ancients". What are the clues and methods you adopted in each stage of your creation?
Zhu Wei: The techniques passed down from the ancients are quite enough to express our present life. Contemporary oil painters in the west never felt their oil techniques are not enough, and they never sat down together to discuss whether their techniques should be modernized. I believe ink techniques have no problem at all. My creation these years is a process of studying from and saluting to the ancients step by step.
Pei Gang: Do you think in Chinese paintings, the traditional poetry, calligraphy, picture and seal can all reflect a literati's self-cultivation and his view of reality? In your early paintings you often inscribed lyrics of rock and roll as part of your work. What the difference between your kind of inscription and the traditional poetries? What the role did it play in your contemporary ink paintings?
Zhu Wei: This was a set of formulas to determine a real literati, through which one could identify whether a literati had courage and knowledge that he should have. Many ancient literatus were braver than military commanders at their times, not like the so called and mistakenly regarded as literatus today, who are just flirting around and cheating around.
Pei Gang: How do you think about the significance of your contemporary ink paintings in the context of globalization when many Chinese artists are using the western concepts in their ink experiments?
Zhu Wei: Experimental ink and wash is a genre never appeared in the history of ink painting. It's a mixture of western contemporary theory and installation, while it does not exclude the traditional culture. I hold a positive attitude toward it. Relatively speaking, what I do is still easel figurative art without a significance of revolution. My 20 years of creation is just a stumbling exploration with runny nose and watery eyes, to find out how the ink and wash could enter the contemporary world, no more contribution except that.
The Personalization Trend of Contemporary Ink and Wash
Pei Gang: If an "Underworld (Jiang-Hu)" does exist in the art circle, is there any "underworld" in ink and wash circle? What's the shape of the underworld?
Zhu Wei: The underworld only exists outside the official system, while in the system it's called factions. For example the warlords fighting and various Kung Fu schools striving for hegemony are both underworld struggles, because each group has different ideas, coordinates, guiding ideologies, rules and taboos; they have different ways to make a living; they don't associate with each other that much. In the system is another world. The Kuomintang troops in the past were divided into different fractions, including central army and local armies, within the local armies there were northwest army, northeast army, Shan army, Jin army, Dian army, Xiang army, Chuan army, etc., but all armies are under the control of the national government, their fund and food were allocated from the national government uniformly, and they had to supported each other in the war. Although sometimes the conflictions between them were so serious that nearly caught fire, they still shared the same fundamental interests, and they were on the same boat. They just fought for attention, and that are fractions.
Pei Gang: If viewed from an angle of feeding, the artists can be divided into in-the-system and outside-the-system. Can the in-the-system artists be subdivided into various fractions or different schools by region? Are there any art groups made up of the outside-the-system artists? What are their concepts and propositions? For example: the ink and wash practice by artists such as Li Huayi, Zheng Zhongbin who are abroad, the art practice by artists such as Zhang Jiangzhou, Lu Yushun who are in the system, the self-employed artists outside the system, and different schools of north and south, etc.
Zhu Wei: The biggest change the reform and opening-up brought to Chinese art ecology is that artists can survive by their artworks. Good artists no longer need to depend on painting academies, institutions, schools and so on which are supported by taxpayers. This is a primary improvement or we can call it a return. The contemporary F4, F5, or F6 whom we are familiar with were not in the system from the beginning or resigned from the system later. The destructions and reforms for more than a hundred years made ink painters, except few of them, can not make a living by their own artworks. How many ink painters are there in the well known painters' villages, such Yuanmingyuan, Songzhuang, Cuigezhuang, or Caochangdi? Counting on in-the-system institutions, ink and wash will become another intangible cultural heritage, like acrobatics. It won't extinct, but without the powerful support from the masses, it will be lifeless, and impossible for any innovations or development. What had happened to ink paintings since May Fourth Movement is an example. So the most important issue is whether ink and wash paintings can really survive by itself, and furthermore, live well.
Pei Gang: Could you tell us how the trend of personalization was formed? Comparing with the developments and changes of contemporary art in the west, could you tell us what the academic basis of the trend? And how it works on ink painting?
Zhu Wei: Personalization is the original intention and essence of art creation, and the final result as well. Creating art is not the group callisthenic, not an activity being homogenous, neatly arranged, one-size-fits-all, otherwise, all museums could be replaced by photo shops. The western contemporary art emphasized more and more on personal characteristics and artist's personality, however, in the beginning they were also like a group of hunters heading out to shoot wolves, whose collective appearance were integrated as impressionism, post impressionism, cubism, expressionism, abstract, dada, surrealism, and so on. After exploration and development for decades of years, the western artists has been more mature and some individual artists, such as Andy Warhol, Damien Hearst, Geoff Koons, Gerhard Richter, Richard Prince and so on who are showing strong personal characteristics in their installations, photography, sculptures and paintings can coexist respectively at the same time. Our contemporary art began late and has risen by imitation, so both its theory and the artists' behavior are copying the early stage of our western peers. We are accustomed to identify them by their collective appearance such as F4, F5, etc. In fact, according to the western standard of contemporary art, a single artist is enough to represent a genre. Contemporary ink and wash should share the same standard with the western contemporary art. It is not handicapped, not needing special treatment. It should not act like a child who is always telling others his distinguishing features. Who don't have distinguishing features? Not to mention acting like an underdog who is always telling others it hasn't been easy for them. Who's easy?
The Appeal of Cultural Identity of Contemporary Ink and Wash
Pei Gang: Do you think to promote contemporary ink and wash is the appeal of Chinese cultural identity in the context of globalized superpower competition?
Zhu Wei: At the beginning of last century, we were anxious to name and relocate the ink painting which we had painted for thousands of years, because at that time the western oil painting had come into China. As a matter of fact, in the late Ming and early Qing Dynasty, oil painting had been brought into China by some missionaries, but it didn't cause the public's attention. Although the Italian painters Giuseppe Castiglione, Giuseppe Panzi and French painter Jean Denis Attiret had been working in the system for the Qing Dynasty for many years, they had not affected other Chinese painters, on the contrary they were often despised. After living dozens of years in China, they had been influenced by Chinese painting, and transformed their oil paintings into meticulous brushwork oil paintings. In the late Qing Dynasty and early period of the republic of China, due to the May Fourth Movement, many Chinese oil painters who returned from studying abroad started to run a class or a school, to organize oil painting research society, to establish oil painting base, to set up oil painting cram schools, and so on, to promote western aesthetics, advocating the importance of the solid basis of sketching and rigorous modeling techniques as well as the body art, and the debate between Xu Beihong and Xu Zhimo about modern western painters appeared... all of which were what those western missionary like Matteo Ricci or painters like Giuseppe Castiglione and Jean Denis Attiret felt impossible or embarrassing to do. Being different from a military conflict, a culture in the culture war cannot be destroyed by collaborating from outside with the inside, but be destroyed by self crash and self disintegration. Corresponding to the word "western painting", a new word "Chinese painting" was created, which also made a start for later names such as "ink and colour painting", "traditional Chinese painting", "Chinese monochromes", etc.
The name "ink and wash" or "ink painting" is another new name after 1985. In order to rush out of Asia and walk up to the world, in order to be in line with the international, the new name should be not so annoying, and it should be friendly, thus inspired by the name of oil painting, this new name also came from its materials. Imagine if the oil painting was called Italian painting, Dutch painting or Netherlandish painting, how can we still learn so hard to paint it? Now we completely forgot the oil painting was an outsider, and tens of thousands of entrance exam candidates including their parents are so proud of being admitted by the department of oil painting.
Experimental ink is a new genre that never appeared before in the Chinese ink painting history. In form it is close to behavioral art and installation, and in content it is close to concept art, which is deeply influenced by the western philosophy and contemporary art theory. I instinctively like the things with consciousness of exploration and innovation. Experimental ink is likely to be a path to internationalization.
Today to be parallel with the contemporary oil painting, we hastily changed our ink painting to contemporary ink painting, and it went so far as to reach a tacit understanding, without even one person to stand out to ask a single question. It is thus clear that after more than one hundred years of May Fourth Movement, Cultural Revolution, Reform and Opening Up, and so on, how open our minds has become today, how deep criticism and self-criticism has rooted among the people, and how strong our ability of self denial and self disintegrating is. This is the current living environment and conditions of the painting which passed down from our ancestors to us through thousands of years.
Pei Gang: During the transformation from the agricultural civilization to the industrial and commercial civilization in Chinese society, inevitably, the contemporary ink and wash will also be pushed by the capital market for its development. In your opinion, how does the market evolve? And in the context of both identity anxiety and capital pressure, what is the relationship between the collective feature of our national culture and the more and more personalized ink painting creation?
Zhu Wei: A harmonious, normal and not distorted market should take millions of ordinary collectors as the core. The western has already done it, that's why their culture and art has strong vitality and ability to continuous exploration. As a result, many famous outstanding artists survive without relying on the government or speculators. Even if there is capital driving force behind it, at last it still needs millions of ordinary collectors to pay the bill. A good artist must be supported by hundreds or even thousands of appreciators who would like to buy his works, which make it's possible for the artist to have time to concentrate on his creation and repay these "employers" who love art. Whether there are a number of art collectors in a country is related to whether the people in this country are wealthy. Never heard that someone is on his way fleeing from famine, as hungry as a starving dog, while he is still eager for a piece of artwork.
China has been an agricultural civilization for thousands of years, but the people had a good live in the past with many ordinary families keeping the habit of collecting art in a high level. The renowned American scholar James Cahill who studied Chinese ancient paintings mentioned a story in his book How Artists Lived and Worked in Traditional China: A collector was very fond of the paintings by a painter who was of high principles. Windy or rainy every day, he went to the hills in front of the village the painter lived, or climbed up to a tree in the village, to observe whether the chimney of the painter's house was smoking. If it wasn't smoking, it meant the painter ran out of food, so that he could bring food, good papers and ink, to visit the painter for asking for his painting. In Song Dynasty, China's GDP was 80% of total GDP of the whole world, and the per capita income equaled to 2280 us dollars at that time in China. In Yuan Dynasty the percentage was 35%, Ming Dynasty was 45%, and Qing Dynasty was 40% to 45%. In early Qing Dynasty China's GDP was still no.1 in the world, until after The Treaty of Shimonosekiin in 1895, China was replaced by USA and became no.2. In 2010 China came back to the no.2 position, however our income per capita was no.127. In 2006 our per capita income was 2016 us dollars, one-twentieth of USA's, which was 44000.
In the preface of Zhu Wei's solo exhibition, there is a paragraph written by Li Xiaoshan, the director of Art Museum of Nanjing University of the Art, in which he described Zhu Wei as "Zhu Wei and his work have become a mirror of contemporary Chinese art. Zhu Wei has penetrated the depths of reality with his extraordinary wit and sharpness, and opened a new door for the public to acquaint themselves with Chinese contemporary art through his works, which are lively and rich in visual tension." The style of Zhu Wei's artwork is consistent with his style of oral and written language, and, referring to this paragraph, with "sharpness" and "tension".