October 9, 2017, www.artron.net,cover story
Zhu Wei: The Influence of Ink Painting Has Never Gone Out of Asia
By Xie Mu
Once I asked Zhu Wei a question which was borrowed from “U Can U Bibi”: if in an eccentric village there is a Fool well, whoever drinks water from it will become a fool, and they will be either unconscious, or confusing right and wrong. Now everyone has drunk the water. Well, would you drink it? Zhu Wei answered: no, I certainly won’t. I’ll be a sober person in that village. Then, I asked, how will you live your life? He said, I will laugh at these silly villagers every day, haha. This simple answer sounds like a joke, but the laughing Zhu Wei made me smile. In fact, there is no a standard answer to this question, but Zhu Wei’s answer precisely shows his unbending, persistent, brave personality, as well as the humor sense and self-confidence in his gene.
Zhu Wei is one of the most important contemporary ink painters in China. His artworks are shown in group exhibitions and solo exhibitions internationally, and his market performance always remains at the forefront in the ranking of contemporary ink artists. As a native Beijinger, on the one hand he seems having a cynical attitude, a mixed sense of humor and irony, on the other hand he treats every stroke in his artworks carefully and meticulously, and he thinks artistic and social problems with a very unique angle. This kind of characteristic of both serious and humorous, both common and precious, makes him a very special artist.
Zhu Wei has always emphasized that as an artist, one’s works should reflect the social reality and must be derived from the observation and thinking of the real life. Born in the 60s of last century, Zhu Wei’s standard outfits are T-shirt, cloth shoes, a bald head in summers; and shoulder bag, army cotton jacket, a bald head in winters. Being no different from other common guys in Beijing, he said these wearing is the most comfortable. When he was young, he lived in the family member residence area of Shougang (literally “the Capital Iron and Steel Corporation”) in Shijingshan, Beijing. He studied in PLA Academy of Art and engaged in artistic creation there. After that he left the army and became an independent artist. During a creative peak in around 2000, he suddenly stopped his art creating, to, in his own words, “play for a couple years”. Later, he started his new series with new thinking.
Critics Lu Hong believes that Zhu Wei’s creation can be broadly divided into three stages, early 90s, 2000-2007, and 2012-present. His outstanding works include series like “The Story of Beijing”, “Sweet Life”, “China Diary”, “Ink and Wash Research Lectures series”, “Vernal Equinox”, and so on. He originally invented the technique of making rice paper look ancient, and successfully created bald soldier, red flag, five-pointed star, lattice window, banana leaf and other artistic symbols with strong personal characteristics. Undoubtedly, these new artistic themes and new feelings, including the process of transforming “socialism experience” into the traditional format of Gongbi painting and then reforming it, are very rare.
Zhu Wei’s solo exhibition “Virtual Focus 1987 - 2017” was held at the Indonesia National Museum from August 26 to October 26, 2017. Over 30 works which were created in a span of nearly 30 years, including ink paintings and three groups of sculptures, have been displayed. During the exhibition, Artron.net had an interview with Zhu Wei. Our topics started from the critical thinking and discussions of intellectuals. He is concerned about the political and economic situation at home and abroad, as it is the motive force of the kernel of social development. He is concerned about the anxiety of losing good traditions in the contemporary China, because for a civilization the problem of inheritance must be resolved. Above all, he once again profoundly and critically talked about the situation of contemporary Chinese ink painting in the world, which has broadened our thinking on the internationalization of ink painting, especially his point of view that the influence of ink painting has never gone outside of Asia.
Xie Mu from Artron.net (hereafter referred to as Artron): What do you think of the status of contemporary ink art?
Artist Zhu Wei (hereafter referred to as Zhu Wei): Nowadays a large number of contemporary ink paintings are created to meet the needs, tastes and decoration demands of the middle-class consumers. They have neither reached the aesthetic level, nor the contemporary level. The reason is on one hand the collectors did not ask for it, and more importantly, many contemporary ink artists never lived in the contemporary art circle. They don’t know the development of contemporary art, and don’t know that on the road toward contemporary, it is impossible to resolve the new problems by using the old values. In previous years many works of the New Ink just satisfied the daily life interest, a primary aesthetic need, which has not gone as far as contemporary art. Of course, if particularly experimental and pioneering works cannot be understood or accepted by collectors or the public, a lot of artists will have to be conservative. The situation that the present contemporary ink paintings are made to meet the need of decoration rather than aesthetic requirement is related to the history and values of ink painting. It is accord with the feudal aesthetics in Asia, it is a symbol of feudal society, and does not represent the contemporary values.
It would be lucky if the present level of ink painting could have been on an even height with our predecessors in the late Qing and early Republic of China. After the Revolution of 1911 (the Chinese bourgeois democratic revolution led by Dr, Sun Yat-sen which overthrew the Qing Dynasty), a large influx of Western capitalist ideas came into China. Chinese people learned to drive cars, live in Western-style houses, go to bars and pubs, eating Western food, and wear Western suits. The capitalist lifestyle was appreciated by the public, and along with the New Life Movement (started February 19, 1934 by Chiang Kai-shek) which included the abolishment of the imperial examination, arranged marriage and foot-binding, Chinese ink painting was reformed. At that time artists were mainly engaged in ink painting, while there were only a few foreign oil painters like Giuseppe Castiglione, Jean-Denis Attiret, Ignatius Sickeltart, and a few students in Guangdong who returned from studying abroad, whose representative works is "Matteo Ricci". Faced with the Westernization, whether to accept the Western art, and how to maintain the features of local art, became the major problem that artists thought about. For this purpose artists established the Chinese Painting Research Association and Chinese Painting Society, in which they proposed slogan like “refining the ancient method to gain new knowledge”. When confronting the issue of contemporary, this slogan can be said has the most objective and sober attitude that local painters and scholars can hold in nearly a hundred years, and it is more constructive and practical than the later self-denial formulation like Ink Painting Revolution. The outstanding artists at that time include Wu Changshuo, Huang Binhong and Wu Hufan. Who among today’s ink painters can compare with them?
Artron: Why does the contemporary ink painting develop slowly?
Zhu Wei: After 1949, ink painting has undergone two shocks of Western ideological trends. The first shock happened when the socialist trend of Soviet Union and East Europe entered China in the 1950s, political slogans became popular, and all reforms must serve for the politics. The other shock happened when the Western post war ideological trend came to China after the Reform and Opening-up in 80s, painting of anti-war slogans began to spread, and all reforms must serve for the economics. Compared with the Revolution of 1911, the influence of the latter two Western ideological trends was regional and small. Therefore, artists could basically make their choice between imported goods and the works handed down from the ancients. For imported goods, what they need to do was only imitation after small adjustment. However, for the inherited works, they had to have the thorough understanding and proficient techniques before the next step transformation. And this resulted in the slow progress of ink painting today.
Artron: Could you tell us the situation of ink painting in Asia?
Zhu Wei: The influence of ink painting is only confined within Asia and some other areas where there are Chinese. It sounds good, but in fact, these areas only include China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Maucao, and Southeast Asia. For India which covers the central and western Asia, and the ancient Babylon area which covers the Mesopotamia area, they are another two civilizations and cultures, and both have the longer history than China. When ink painting spread to South Korea, they changed its name to "Korean painting". When ink painting came to Japan in the Song Dynasty, they called it “Nanga” (the Southern school of Chinese painting). The Japanese strictly followed the existing format of ink painting, so today's Japanese Nanga still retains the features and artistic conception of the literati painting in the Southern Song Dynasty. Before building up their own language system, Southeast Asia had been colonized by Europeans, thus their languages are more like European languages. Some countries like Philippines and Singapore simply use English as their official language. Both situations formed a natural barrier to the Chinese hieroglyphs culture.
We shouldn’t be blindly optimistic about the fact that many major museums in the world have a large collection of ancient Chinese ink paintings. Most Western museums have the tradition to collect works from the world, such as sculptures from Africa, miniatures from ancient Babylon, ink paintings from China, murals and weavings and bowls for drinking water from American Indian, etc. They collect everything that one expects to find in the evolution of human civilization. It has nothing to do with the influence of Chinese ink painting.
Artron: If so, then how can ink painting be spread out and be internationalized?
Zhu Wei: The primary problem that contemporary ink artists need to solve is not aesthetic taste or technique, which our ancestors have left us enough, and we cannot even go beyond. It is easy to realize this point if we go to the Forbidden City to see an exhibition. The primary problem is not spreading or dissemination or internationalization either. What we can do is to have the contemporary consciousness. Ink painting has carried values of slavery society and feudal society for thousands of years, it keeps the trace of social development, and the works of it are more about recording, showing skills, at most complaining, but hardly introspection. This limits ink painting's depth, breadth, and even its highest level as an art form. There is a vast difference between values of ink painting and contemporary art, which affect the spreading and dissemination of ink painting today. This gap needs us to fill, and it needs the improvement and enhancement of the whole society. Contemporary ink painting is not ink painting painted by contemporary people, instead, it is art created by artists who have contemporary consciousness as well as independent thinking.
In my opinion, contemporary ink painting should be an embodiment of contemporary values, a value that has never been seen in the past and is the most advanced and realistic in human history. Whether an artwork is contemporary depends on whether the artist’s idea and motive are contemporary, rather than some contemporary symbols on the surface.
Artron: Could you tell us how to persist in observing society and express reality for so many years?
Zhu Wei: I paint ink paintings. In fact, I am more a defender, inheritor and explorer of traditional painting.
Frankly speaking, up to now China still does not have its own contemporary art form. All the art forms, except for ink painting, are imported from outside, including the peasant painting. We should respect imported goods, ask permission before we use and spread it, and lastly, indicate the source and bow to express gratitude. This is what a civilized nation or group must do, rather than just use, plagiarize and imitate it so ruthlessly that even forget who is the original. This kind of borrowlism has been severely criticized by Lu Xun in the 30s of the last century.
One day our contemporary ink painting will also go out and become an integral part of world contemporary art, even be popular. When we go out individually or in group, it’s not to return the favor, but to communicate. That is internationalization.
Postscript: China is in a time of great change. Everything is extremely uncertain. At the same time, China has a history of thousands of years, with established rules in many things. How to express, to record, to feel and to think such a great era through painting is every artist’s responsibility and destiny. The reason why Zhu Wei is Zhu Wei, a representative artist of contemporary Chinese ink painting, a contemporary artist who’s often in a critical state, a professional artist who adheres to business rules, is that under the pluralistic conditions of extremities, rules and efficiency, he uses the most traditional techniques and materials to express the present state of China, and in the meantime, to create images full of personal characteristics. He converts what he sees and feels to reveal the current situation in China. In an era of globalization and homogenization, Zhu Wei represents a unique voice of Chinese artist.