“Hi Front page People” column
Zhu Wei, Hatched Under The Flag
Our devoted columnist expounds on Zhu Wei-a sharp writer and creative thinker making ripples with the unveiling of his second exhibition in China. Zhu Wei and Cheng Xindong made a promise sixteen years ago, which has finally been realized and we eagerly dashed over to check out the show. While Zhu Wei’s laid-back attitude remains unchanged, our interview felt somewhat awkward. Perhaps we know each other too well.
I highly respect the artist Zhu Wei. Rather than rant on about his artistic achievements, it suffices to say that a book could be written about the buzz and lame debate surrounding his “potato people” and whether they should be considered contemporary art. For this reason, many Chinese curators do not like to include Zhu Wei in projects so the “banged up man” floats within the western market. Every situation has pros and cons. Zhu Wei, among the first generation of artists who became wealthy, remains carefree and down to earth. But as I struggle to find a way to describe him in detail, my mind becomes saturated with images from a Cui Jian concert, which Zhu Wei invited me to attend this year. Zhu Wei hid in the corner watching. When the songs turned sentimental, Zhu Wei and Jiang Wen-also at the concert-stood up to sing along in loud voices-they even burst into tears. Naturally their crocodile tears turned into piss at the after party. There is hope for men in their forties to blossom because they have reached a point where they despise money as crap- although they are wealthy. They hide behind their emotions and seem carefree when they are disappointed. This state of mind could be attributed to exceptional DNA. Of course, the hardships endured in the past also play a part. Otherwise, no one could achieve success so easily. Although achieving success when a man is in his forties only marks the beginning. On the other hand, this stage could also mark the beginning of when a man develops a gut or when brain failure sets in, if he goes off the deep end. On a more serious note, despite few works in the show, each work exhibited in Zhu Wei’s show is meaningful and the exhibition is worth checking out. Honestly, Zhu Wei has become a dear friend.
Hi Art = Hi Zhu Wei = Zhu
A Promise From 16 Years Ago
Hi: Prospects aren’t good, why are you having a solo exhibition?
Zhu: This exhibition is the result of a promise made sixteen years ago. At the time, Cheng Xindong was working at Galerie de France and I was represented by Plum Blossoms Gallery in Hong Kong. I forget the exact date, but I told Cheng Xindong, “I will collaborate with you when I am free.” Much to my surprise, fourteen years later, Cheng Xindong still remembered this promise, thus the reason for this exhibition.
Hi: Did you feel the economic crisis while living in the United States recently?
Zhu: Of course I felt it! Although I might sound rude, it is very arrogant for us to sit back and watch the “American economic crisis” unfold when it is also happening here. Our core systems are different. If both countries were plummeting to the ground, we would hit rock bottom while they would still manage to float above water! Where there are different standards, there are also different consequences.
Hi: In other words, western collectors are still buying paintings because they have not hit rock bottom?
Zhu: When the economy is rocky, the stock market becomes unstable, so wealthy collectors often turn to antiques and artwork. That’s how it usually works.
Hi: Have you been following the Sotheby’s auction results? The price of nearly every work has been cut in half and only a few works managed to fetch above the estimate.
Zhu: Dropping to 1/4 of the original market price would not be excessive. For example, if a painting is appraised at two hundred thousand, but the asking price is jacked up and inflated to two million or twenty million, slashing the price to 1/8 of the asking price would not be out of line. Of course, it’s great for all of us if the market for contemporary art is hot. Anyway, I doubt many people would agree to slash the asking price to 1/8.
Hi: So I’m wondering how many people are collecting art because they truly appreciate it?
Zhu: I think the majority of people truly appreciate art. If someone buys art because they like it and subsequently the work increases in value, then from an investment point of view, that would obviously be a plus. The worse case scenario is when the collector has no interest in the art and the collection is merely a scheme to launder money. Perhaps these types of people will be affected by the economic crisis.
No Bubbles Last Forever
Hi: People are constantly talking about the bubble theory. I was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the bubble.
Zhu: The speculators are often the bubble makers. Do you think it’s constructive for the artist? Do you think it’s good for you? People build hype to create a charade instead of following the fluctuations in the market. The latter choice would be positive for you, the artist and the collector. You see some groups are always favored. Do you think that’s fair?
Hi: It’s not fair.
Zhu: Falling down, and then rising up again… wouldn’t that be good?
Hi: Sometimes, I take pleasure in the misfortune of others—watching as some of the galleries who promote revolting artwork can no longer close a sale.
Zhu: I don’t agree that this is taking pleasure in someone’s misfortune. It’s having a good head on your shoulders. That junk became popular because of the bubble.
Hi: Maybe there are permanent bubbles?
Zhu: You are funny, how could a bubble be permanent.
Hi: Many think that you do not belong to any group, leading a lifestyle like the poet Tao Yuanming- is that true?
Zhu: That’s living life like of an old bastard. My situation is different. The content of my paintings can be categorized as contemporary art, but using materials of ink and water confuses critics, curators, artists, dealers and museums as to what I do or how to evaluate me. Everyone is always grilling me asking, “how do you categorize your work?” This discussion and labeling has been going on for more than a decade, and yet no conclusion has been reached. Thus I’ve been floating all these years.
Hi: Do you mind being overlooked?
Zhu: Of course I mind. I will give you an example. Awhile back, there was an exhibition at Cheng Xindong’s gallery, “Brightness, Red, and Luminescence”. Six months earlier, they invited me to participate in this exhibition. I happily made two new works specifically for this show, but when the exhibition date was approaching, they told me, “Zhu Wei, we are sorry that although you are quite famous and everyone knows your work, which is great, our exhibition will only include oil painting.” So I thought, f**k, why didn’t you tell me sooner. I was quite upset, so I went to America. Should contemporary art include ink painting? After all these years, I am no longer shocked at such a debate. But, it was upsetting that I was rejected.
Hi: Many years ago, you collaborated with a PR firm, which is a rather unique approach.
Zhu: That had nothing to do with me. A friend of mine worked at a PR firm, and they were looking to hire two art consultants. At the time, I didn’t want to collaborate with galleries anymore and decided to do something on my own, so I agreed. I remember the other consultant was Ye Jintian. What are the benefits of being an art consultant? They would publish catalogues of our work, or include images of our work for publicity.
Hi: In fact, it’s a unique way of self-promotion.
Zhu: That’s true, usually the gallery would ask for artwork in exchange. I signed a two-year contract with the PR firm and they didn’t ask me for a penny. The other advantage of working with a PR firm is the distance from the art market and PR firms are more professional than most galleries, so it was easy to collaborate with them.
Excluded from Contemporary and Ink Painting
Hi: I think “contemporary ink painting” is a rather desperate term.
Zhu: Contemporary ink painting should be considered a cultural phenomenon, since ink painting is indigenous to China. Why does everyone appreciate oil painting? Because they lack confidence in their culture. Some people believe oil paintings are easier to preserve than works on paper, but look at some of the Song dynasty paintings- they are fine. In fact, there are only a few ink painters in the contemporary art world-me, Wei Dong, Li Jin, Xu Lei-who have done quite well in China. What is bizarre is that westerners can appreciate contemporary Chinese paintings, but the Chinese would rather look at oil paintings. Furthermore, we believe our works are part of the ink painting tradition, but older ink painters don’t agree. We are rejected by both the contemporary and ink painting circles. This is the condition of contemporary ink painting.
Hi: Then, why have you always maintained this practice?
Zhu: There are many painters creating oil paintings, they don’t need me.
Hi: You should be considered as an independent artist in the art world, like our magazine, which does not need to rely on any old-fashioned system.
Zhu: Because of periodicals like Hi Art, this murky art world has potential to become more transparent. Your presence prevents those schemers and pretenders. Historically, the art world has been divided into academic periodicals and commercial periodicals, so the artists had to kowtow to both parties, to satisfy both sides. Your magazine seems to have removed this. No matter how powerful the expert is, you can still point out where he should restrain himself; and no matter how desperate the artist is, you can tell him there is potential. I think your magazine, unlike many other publications, has been working in such regards.
Hi: Thank you, although somehow it seems to resemble the condition of contemporary ink painting.
Zhu: There are times I feel that things are unfair.
Hi: There are certain people painting crap, driving fast cars, and keeping many wives. I think, as a man, you can’t be unaffected by this situation.
Zhu: The key is how much a man has in his savings, not the type of car he drives or the brand of clothing he wears. The car, clothing, and the number of wives a man has is perhaps only equivalent to 1% of his income, do you know how much he has in savings?
Hi: In other words, he’s wealthier than he appears?
Zhu: Of course, he could endure the drought and survive the winter. Artists nowadays are rich, and bubbles might not affect them. Compared to galleries and auction houses, artists can keep their money when the market is not in their favor, stay home, and return when the market improves.
Hi: I think some of your paintings are quite commercial, is that a criticism?
Zhu: It is not easy for ink painting to be commercial. Do you know where my painting of Five Oxen is hanging right now? In the New York Stock Exchange lobby. It was sold during my solo show in New York for thirty thousand dollars.
Hi: Even with the current economic crisis, they have not taken the painting down?
Zhu: I did not paint bears.
I don’t admit that I am aging
Hi: How many transformations or phases have your paintings undergone?
Zhu: Three or four. Beijing Story was created during the end of the 80s and early 90s. Later on, those paintings resembled Political Pop Art. At the end of the 90s, I began creating the Public Square Series, and added contemporary elements such as color to my ink paintings. Later on I produced work about fairies spreading flowers and utopia, which represented a departure from politics and consideration on how to transform ink painting from a technical point of view. My most recent works tend to be more traditional. Starting from a desire to reform ink painting and ultimately returning to it. Now, I am in a phase of creating calmly. There have been both good and bad times, so now I am at peace.
Hi: As a contemporary ink painter, it’s quite a unique phenomenon that you have befriended rock musician Cui Jian. Or at least, you have shared many experiences with him.
Zhu: Cui Jian composed a song titled, Cities Surrounded By the Countryside for my solo exhibition in 2001. The title on the fax cover page said, “for Zhu Wei, hope your exhibition will be a success.” I thought what do these lyrics have to do with me, so I returned it to him.
Hi: Contemporary ink painting is like a city surrounded by the countryside.
Zhu: I always thought I was quite fashionable.
Hi: I think a people like Cui Jian are getting old.
Zhu: When you reach a certain age, you don’t want to admit it. I don’t feel much older than I was twenty years ago. At the time I was immature, now I laugh at what I did back then. I don’t want to admit that I am old.
Two New Red Flags
Hi: What new works are included in this exhibition?
Zhu: Two paintings of red flags.
Hi: And they became the eggs hatched under the flags?
Zhu: This time there is no egg, just the red flags.
Hi: Hatching red flags?
Zhu: What I would like to say is that, although China is undergoing drastic changes, we are still essentially under the red flag. This year’s Olympic games are a typical example. It seemed lively, but the rhetoric was entirely inline with that from The Cultural Revolution. There is a large painting of utopia that I started in 2004, 8.4 meters long, 7 meters high, consisting of 140 small paintings. The painting is too large for one piece of glass, so it was divided into 140 pieces. Perhaps it won’t be exhibited due to time constraints.
Hi: Why paint a large painting? Is it like reading the sutra, to train the mind?
Zhu: I would like to show people that ink painting can also be done in large format.
Hi: What are your dreams? Have they been realized?
Zhu: My dream is to reconsider the ink painting tradition. I do not believe that the art produced in China should be viewed as inferior to western art. Regardless of whether the market shifts, I must carry on with ink painting.
《Hi Art》2008年11月刊“Hi 封面人物”栏目
Hi 艺术=Hi 朱伟= 朱
朱：这个个展是16 年前的一个约定，当时程昕东还在法国法兰西画廊工作，我一直在和香港的万玉堂合作，忘了是什么时候，我对程昕东说过：“一旦我自由了，就和你合作。”没想到14 年过去了，程昕东还记得，于是就有了现在这个展览。
朱：你要把水墨画画商业了也不容易，这张《五牛图》我后来给改了，你知道这张画现在挂在哪儿吗？在纽约证券交易所大厅，2003 年我在纽约的个展上3 万美元卖出去的。
朱： 三、四次吧，80 年代末90 年代初的时候《北京故事》是一次改变，后来那些画有点接近政治波谱，90 年代末的时候，开始做广场系列，在水墨画上加入了一些当代的东西，包括颜料、落款上也是全新的，再往后就是天女散花乌托邦这样的作品，离政治越来越远，主要是思考怎么从技法上改变水墨画？最近的作品却越来越传统，从过去想改革水墨到重新回到水墨，经历了这么多年，现在是越来越安静创作的时候，基本上该经历的、该做的事都做了，好的也赶上了，坏的也赶上了，所以如今安静了。