www.arton.net, July 20, 2015
Zhu Wei: When passion faded, only anxiety is left over
By Liu Qian
After 27 years of his painting career, artist Zhu Wei began to question the contemporary art he engages in. Having put painting aside and played for a while, he found he cannot get his passion back to paint, or try as hard as before. "I don't want to send the army out without a righteous cause. The painting I'm working on is not what I really want, because of fatigue, or being lack of new theme." Thus, Zhu Wei "gave priority to playing" presently. It is not the first time he ignored his proper occupation, while before he painted his Ink and Wash Research Lectures series, Zhu Wei stalled painting for 5 to 6 years from 2007 to 2012. "Some people said I was taking a break, actually only anxiety was left over."
In the seemingly happy but anxious days, when Zhu Wei was looking for his new forms of painting, he still could not get rid of his artist nature of caring for the fate of his nation and people, which drove him to ponder about the future of contemporary Chinese art: "So far for the contemporary art, all the artists in the world are standing on the same starting line. Everyone is facing the same situation of without rice to cook. However, when there is no new painting appearing in western contemporary art, why Chinese artists also immediately lapse into silence? When China's economy is rising, why there is no similar sign in art?"
Coinciding with the 30th anniversary of '85 New Wave Movement, all kinds of retrospective events are held in this year one after another. Zhu Wei said directly: "A movement which is a imitation of the West, is its 30th anniversary worth retrospecting? Or we can wait, until 60th anniversary, or 100th anniversary, to see if there is anything worth retrospecting." Apparently, Zhu Wei was disappointed about contemporary art, even his disappointment might be an idle fear to other artists. Zhu Wei talked about his doubt with many people, but nobody has resonance. Indeed, after so many years' being on the spot, who would like to deny their own history?
Always criticizing the existing evils in contemporary art, Zhu Wei's tone is the typical "Old Beijing" style. Zhu Wei said he was more and more conservative about new stuffs. He doesn't use Weibo or Wechat, while his mobile phone is an old Nokia that only supports phone calls and messages. Of course, he still has his bald head, sunglasses, dressing style and favor for Rock and Roll, which are good enough for his identity of the fashionable "contemporary artist".
Born in 60's, Zhu Wei is a representative of post '89 artists. He was studying in the somewhat closed PLA Art Academy during the 85 New Wave Movement, while many art groups started a general discussion about art. Although he didn't take part in the passionate wave directly, he watched all the important contemporary art exhibitions in 1980s. His later paintings were influenced by the environment of 85 New Wave, but without the heaviness or seriousness of the "old 85"s. Their generation wouldn't use certain symbols perfectly like the "old 85"s, which is just like their attitude toward contemporary art. From the right beginning the post '89 art is bantering and ironical. Even he complains a lot about contemporary art, he always stresses the importance of Chinese ink and wash: "The ink and wash painting has a longer history than other art forms, basing on which, the theory of contemporary Chinese art should go further."
Self is the best art
Artron: In 1985 you was enrolled in the PLA Art Academy, how was the environment then? Has you been influenced by the 85 New Wave?
Zhu Wei: The army is a very closed place, but the big environment is there. I didn't take part in 85 New Wave directly. If I have to talk about the connection between the 85 movement and me, the first thing is that I had watched all the exhibitions at that time, such as Modern Art Exhibition, the Human Body Exhibition in the National Art Museum of China. The second thing is that I had read all the magazines and books about contemporary, many of which are still kept in my home today. Back then I paid more attention to the ink and wash development in Zhejiang province, including artists like Gu Wenda and Shen Qin, whom I thought were bold in painting.
Artron: In such context, how you start to create your art?
Zhu Wei: The first painting I created is Landscape Derivative from Bada's Brush Style in 1987. It is a pure landscape, without any figure, which might be influenced by the 85 New Wave. I could paint it perfectly but I intended not to, where I structurized Bada's landscapes, making it into a quite decorative-painting style with structure, mountains, rivers, and calligraphy. As we were required to paint only sketches in classes, such painting that I really wanted to paint certainly could not be shown in our academy. I also painted a little splashed ink, but many of them failed, with only one left at last.
And later I began to paint figures. I lived at Wanquan Zhuang behind the People's University, near the Old Summer Palace and Peking University, so I often rode a bicycle to watch what everyone else was painting, and then came back to use ink and wash to paint them. However, I didn't want to live in Old Summer Palace, because artists lived there were all oil painters, as an ink painter, we didn't have much common topics. At that time I created the Story of Beijing series.
Arton:Being completely different from the painting during 85 New Wave period, the painting status of your generation actually is close to our life.
Zhu Wei: For people born in 1960s, without the massive pain that their prior-generation held, their reaction to things and environment can be naturally reflected in their paintings. When we grew up, the Cultural Revolution has come to an end, and we didn't experience the Down to the Countryside Movement, thus our pursuit of certain things is not that urgent, nor so painful as well. By in the early 1990s, market appeared. Artists started to wonder how to sell their art, for example, what Liu Wei studied was printmaking, but nobody wanted monochromatic prints at that time, so he figured out a good method by buying foreign pigments which were finely classified, and squeezing them directly onto the painting to make it colorful. My ink painting was similar.
Artron: From The Story of Beijing series the military figure has existed in your paintings, and then you painted Comrade Captain and other army related figure paintings. Is it related to your personal experience?
Zhu Wei: Painting military figure was because I was in military at that time. When the consciousness and ideological trend of contemporary art arose, people of our generation realized that we should paint ourselves, instead of painting lives not relevant to us. Self is the best art. Everyone around me painted stories about themselves. The concept was changing. Abrupt or not, to put yourself together with the society, just put it together.
Artron: It seems from your painting Comrade Captain No.3, you have started focusing on one figure? Before that your paintings are mostly a combination of multi-figures and landscapes, from this painting on, you focus on human figure himself.
Zhu Wei: Indeed. From this painting on I began to pay more attention to a certain person, and before that my paintings did not seem related to a person's inner world. Prior to this I often painted Mao Zedong, who could make people smell the sense of times. If I painted a stranger, or my relatives, people didn't know them. This painting (Comrade Captain No.3), on one hand, was in concert with the society, to come into a person's inner world, on the other hand, was a work when my techniques of figure paintings was relatively matured, and I can grasp a human's soul. Before this painting, probably being lack of related ability, I felt ink paintings were weak. I thought if it was not painted into a narrative situation or novel-like picture, an ink painting could be untenable, so I always described a thing or a scene by people and landscapes. It was in this painting I fully grasped how to paint a contemporary person, and it can be connected with the times, so I started to paint the big heads.
Artron: Facing with the impact of Western paintings, will you discuss with others about the problem of ink painting?
Zhu Wei: In the 1990s there was a discussion of the new literati painting, but at that moment we were busy at creation and seldom discussed it. Everyone just finished their paintings, and then sold them. We wouldn't like others to see our works, nor to visit other's studio, or watch each other's paintings.
Artron: Then what was the state of your creation at that time?
Zhu Wei: I was young, passionate, and feeling there were endless paintings to be painted. While paintings continuously came out in front of me, I didn't think too much, and in my mind there was no guiding ideology. But after more than twenty years, I don't want to paint now. I am thinking, including thinking about whether the works I kept painting for so many years are contemporary art.
From 1993 I began to cooperate with galleries. At that time I only kept in touch with the gallery I cooperated with. I was usually alone, riding a bicycle to the Old Summer Palace, not communicating with anyone, just for food there. I was kind of a loner. I even made a rule with the gallery saying that I was not in any group exhibitions, only solos. I thought if putting ink paintings and oil paintings together, because oil color can reflect light, while ink painting was showed behind a layer of glass, so they were not very good looking. Sometimes I painted large works which is more than 3 meters high, and then could not find such big glass to match it. It always felt like I brought a colorful sketch to compete with others. Now I think it was wrong. I met Cheng Xindong just now, and we talked about the group exhibition of contemporary art held at France Gallery in Paris, 1996. The exhibition invited Fang Lijun, Wang Guangyi, Gu Dexin and me, but I refused it because it was a group exhibition. Then the exhibition created a big sensation.
Artron: From 1989 to the middle of 1990s, the style of your image actually changed a little.
Zhu Wei: At beginning I deliberately created an old effect to my paintings. When I painted contemporary themes back then, considering ink paintings should not be too new, I always wanted to pull it back to the tradition. So for the Tiananmen, red flags, soldiers I painted, I made the color old, and made the image connected with tradition. Later people began to accept the contemporary painting. Afterwards, I found even I didn't make the painting look ancient, I could still create a painting which smells traditional.
Artron: The most obvious change of style happened in your Sweet Life series. Are they reflecting some change in your life?
Zhu Wei: The Sweet Life series include more than 30 paintings totally. When I started this series I did feel life was going to be sweet. In 1993 when I was twenty-six or twenty seven, I signed an exclusive contract with the gallery, which was terminated when I was forty-one. This contract equaled to an iron bowl without any worry about food or drink. From about 1995 my mood began to change. I had enough to live comfortably. I bought my first car when there were not many cars on Beijing's roads. I drunk drove every night without any punishment. I went to bars every night, hanging out with rock bands every time. At that time I watched an Italian movie called "Sweet Life", which brought this title to me. I was in good mood and painted a lot, at a speed of thirty to forty paintings per year. I was in a good state of painting as well, refreshing daily. Not like now, I paint one painting for 7 months.
Artron: Besides creating paintings, you spent a lot of time with rock band friends. Does music has any influence on your painting?
Zhu Wei: Yes. Rock music is abstract. You want to express it but you cannot find its image, so when you create images you have your own practice. It is meaningful to me. With artist friends, it's easy to steal from each other.
When Ink Meets Market
Artron: Your painting series always constantly transformed. Only in 1990s you have created more than 10 series.
Zhu Wei: I have painted 19 series till now, while each series changed greatly from their early to late stage. I don't like the cognition of symbol which was caught by commerce and market. A lot of people talked to me, saying don't change too much to be recognized, but I think I'm painting forward step by step like this, and happily. Part of the reason was due to the various types of exhibitions. I would like to change, but every time I could only change a little before the next exhibition was coming, and sometimes it's a bit to cope with the exhibition. The real change came in 2012 when I started the concept painting series Ink and Wash Research Lectures series.
Artron: You mentioned you don't want to paint a particular symbol which was commercially recognized, but the work China China was a typical of this.
Zhu Wei: Yes. It's a painting of Deng Xiaoping, which is specially pursued and admired by the market. People think it has a strong sense of times, galleries sought its prints, and many collectors in Taiwan came to buy it. So far there are hundreds of its prints, and they are sold quickly and expensively. This is a contradiction to me. I have created many figure paintings, and it's only one of them.
Probably many artists have faced similar contradiction. You want to change the way others view you, but the audiences only recognize that thing. Like actress Zhao Wei, once played the role of Xiaoyanzi, afterwards no matter whom she was playing, people always thought it's not so appropriate. It's easily for market to bring such pain to artists as well. Painful not being famous, and painful being famous but you cannot change. It is also a very dangerous phase. The audiences and galleries may not accept you after you transform, and then you may disappear from the contemporary art world. If you want to stick to it, it will be very painful. For me, because I painted many series in these years, and my works are complex, things will be better.
Artron: What series is your favorite among so many paintings series?
Zhu Wei: The Utopia series can be said is something new in creating. For me it's successful, because the picture is simple, acclimatizing elements of the ancient Chinese painting as well. I'm satisfied with it. In years of practicing I keep thinking that ink painting has to give consideration to China's more than two thousand years of tradition. Just walking forward all the time is not ink. For the image itself it's so, and for the real world outside the image it's so too. The Utopia reflects the current situation of our society, which is actually a huge meeting site, with everyone there taking notes, writing down nonsense. This is a phenomenon in China.
Exploration after Stagnation
Artron: From 2007 to 2012 before your Ink and Wash Research Lectures series, you had stagnated for a long while. Why?
Zhu Wei: I stopped intermittently for five or six years before Ink and Wash Research Lecture series in 2012, during which I occasionally painted two porcelain pots. In the past there were butterflies painted on porcelain plates, while I replace butterflies with human figures floating in the painting, leaving much blank, but people didn't understand what I painted was porcelain. And then I terminated the contract with the gallery. Nobody pushing you is quite good. Now no matter how much money you pay me, I don't want to paint. My passion for painting has passed.
Artron: It was said that you were taking a rest at that time. Do you feel anxious, with nothing to paint?
Zhu Wei: Basically only anxiety was left over. Although at that time the media said I was having a rest, taking some films, and so on, in fact I still wanted to paint. But it's difficult to start. In 2012 I found Ink and Wash Research Lectures series. However, I think it not the exact contemporary ink painting I want.
When starting up Ink and Wash Research Lectures series, Chinese people's living conditions has been changed a lot in the past twenty to thirty years, with a little bit Jazz, bars, loans, mortgages around everyone, but in fact, people did not free themselves from their ambitions. They just became tired, less-passionate, losing the power they once had, and it seems everyone is tolerating such state. So what I painted is a state of being tolerant.
Artron: The series is called Ink and Wash Research Lectures series. Does it mean you are looking at some problem of ink painting itself?
Zhu Wei: Correct. This series is called Ink and Wash Research Lectures series, I named it "Research", which means it's not a final resolution. I think it's not finished, not the ultimate ink painting I want. With a history of thousands of years, the characteristics of ink and wash paintings should be maintained, and should not be flushed away by Western impact. I always think that ink and wash painting is a topic, and for me the topic is like this: since one has painted ink and wash paintings, he should make some breakthrough. Nevertheless, having painted for a long time, I always think I didn't make much exciting contributions, and it's not only me, thus I often questioned contemporary art. Chinese contemporary art should give priority to exploration, and keep away from market to maintain the vitality. I think the artists nowadays should ponder about this issue.
文 / 刘倩
雅昌艺术网：您说不太想被商业认知到特别具有符号的作品，但是《中国 中国 》那件作品却是很典型的。