Hi Art, April Issue, 2011
An Angry Youth, Director and Columnist Who Paints Ink and Wash
Writer/An Xixiang Photographer/Mei Yuangui Pictures by courtesy of Zhu Wei
Turning on his computer that day, Zhu Wei originally wanted to find some pictures of his works. However, suddenly he changed his mind and opened another folder, “Well, let’s enjoy this at first.” It was an MV named “Blooming”, which was from the painful band “Faith” and not fully edited yet. With a silver-gray tone and without any background, the video only showed singing members of the band. The picture had been carefully processed, and the misty scene gave some trace of Richter’s works. “I’m its creator, how do you like it?” I felt his pride from the voice, although he was wearing an indifferent face. After the video was over, he showed me another supplement, from which I saw a Zhu Wei in a film studio, who was different from the one in the art studio: they are both with the attitude of “I don’t care anything”, but the Zhu Wei sitting after the monitor was more like a fiery-spirited director.
Zhu Wei has been in with Chinese rock and roll scene. Some years ago, he had designed the stage set for Cui Jian’s singing tour in the USA. Now retrospecting his works created in the 1990s, we immediately found Cui Jian’s image and lyrics in some of them, for example, “Eggs under the Red Flag”, “China’s Diary”, “the Public Square” and “the Running Horse in a Rainy Evening”. People say that Zhu Wei, who expresses rock and roll on the rice paper, has “successfully felt the pulse of the times”, which sounds somewhat awkward. As to me, I would like to present it in a more direct way: the raging blood of rock and roll is flowing in the vessels of the youth who is engaging in ink and wash paintings.
A few days later, we sat in front of his computer to search for the pictures of his works again, but his mouse clicked another unexpected target once more: a folder full of pictures taken on journey. “I took them when I travelled to America”, he said. Then I shifted my attention to the short videos shot with his single-lens reflex recorder. In the early morning, he was overlooking the street gilded by the dim lights from the window of the hotel. With the camera moving up slowly, the tone of the picture leaped from pale yellow to bright blue. Sometimes, he panned out from some words to a roll of old newspaper, a dustbin the newspaper was in, the street by the dustbin, and then a white car rushing by followed by the camera. Sometimes, he was casually browsing the colorful fruits, vegetables, packages, and so on, which were neatly placed on the shelves of the well-supplied supermarket. He had shot the scenes aimlessly, but it seemed that there was an imminent story hidden behind each video; however, the end of the story would never appear.
“Are you still dreaming to make films?” I asked Zhu who graduated from the Department of Stage Design in Film Academy, and he did not make a reply. After a short silence, he said he had ever planned to be enrolled in the Director Department, but then his family discouraged him, and the unpleasant feeling had lasted even till the moment he received my interview. “The matter has affected my whole life”, he said seriously without the sense of humor as a columnist of the journal.
Initially, I was preprocessed by his column of this journal. With a broad vision, he is a little cynical. He is good at introducing humorous suspense into his stories, which makes his articles so funny while profound. I still remember his The Reason Why I Dislike Wotou written at the end of last year: it went from the coarse Wotou, Empress Ci Xi, folk songs and at last to the original lyric of The East is Red. When I was reading it, I could not help singing with the lyric he listed. From then on I have formed a habit: as soon as I see Wotou I want to sing.
Then I drew back my attention to Zhu Wei again. Settling his home in the suburb of Beijing, he drives to the studio near the World Trade Center. From there, one can enjoy the prosperity of the central business district. In the studio, he has a huge workbench covered by paintings made in Song Dynasty and calligraphy paper. Every day he practices handwriting modeling Zhu Da and Yan Zhenqing, accompanied by traditional stories told by Shan Tianfang or rock or jazz. Then he will spend 1 or 2 hours to draw his own paintings carefully, with the rest time used to make drafts. At last, he takes photos for the drafts and saves them into the computer. It sounds that his life is fairly quiet, making him a seemingly hermit who was surrounded by earthliness and far from the fiery-spirited director, rock youth and humorous columnist.
Artists Are Parasites
Hi Art = Hi Zhu Wei = Zhu
I Do Not Want to Mention Artistic Works Created after 1996
Hi: Why don’t you want to talk about artistic worked created after 1996?
Zhu: The contemporary art in China was still at the exploration stage before 1995 and 1996. Then no one dare to say he was brilliant, successful or outstanding. Everyone was trying, so nobody knew what was right, and in such a period, the boldness and skill were the most important. However, since 1996, the contemporary art has been accepted by the market, and the works sell well. Then artists of each generation begin to create paintings with the similar style, which is so boring. What is encouraging them to paint is not their passion but money.
Hi: What you have mentioned is more like a change in the external environment. I find some subtle changes in your own work created in 1996.
Zhu: So you have carefully examined my paintings, which is not so easy for you, a journalist who have to visit various exhibitions frequently. The creation of these paintings began in 1989 and lasted for 6 years. Then I entered a stationary phase in 1996 and made a change. At first, I wanted to draw and cover everything I had seen, while after 1996 I found that it is meaningless if the picture contains too many minute details but without profound language. Then I began to strengthen the artistic language and exclude the meaningless content, by which the painting can touch the point directly and concisely. What is highlighted is the notion, namely, the sense of repression I have been wanting to express.
Hi: What do you mean by “repression”?
Zhu: One the one hand, I mean the living environment of the Chinese people is repressive; on the other, I feel that the ink and wash painting has exerted a lot of pressure on me. As to the living environment, needless to talk about something far away, I can give you some examples happened in these decades. I think the Chinese people are the ones who have suffered most in the world. They have experienced numerous fierce political movements such as Fighting against “Three evils” and “Five evils” and the Cultural Revolution, and then they were thrown into the mainstream of doing business. None of the movements came with a preliminary announcement, and none of them is the result of negotiation with the public. Every Chinese is living passively, and no one knows or can predict what will happen next. Compared with ink and wash paintings, oil paintings only have 100 years of history in China. The earliest originators of Chinese oil paintings are contemporary artists such as Lin Fengmian, Xu Beiming, Jin Shangyi and Zhan Jianjun, and, may include Yang Feiyun and Wang Yidong. However, with a tradition of over 3000 years, ink and wash paintings can be easily dated back to Song Dynasty booming with masters. Therefore, it is rather difficult to draw ink and wash paintings: the breakthrough is hard to make in both techniques and presentation.
Hi: Then how can you deal with such repression?
Zhu: Just accept it.
Indeed, although I say so, I have ever planned to draw some oil-paintings. However, I am also afraid of being accused of lacking a firm stand and leaning to the superior.
Hi: Have you really tried to turn to oil paintings?
Zhu: In 2003, I tried to draw oil paintings and found a girl, who was living in Huajiadi and graduated from Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, to assist me. Planning to draw 4 large paintings, I had prepared the drafts at first. Then I went to fetch the first painting which was done by her. I still remember she was living on the 3rd floor of an apartment, and I had a rather hard time when I was walking upstairs. Engaging in a fierce mental struggle, I felt I was committing a crime. Then my assistant, who is called Nannan and working in an art gallery now, starred at me, finding that I was sick and pale. Although it was in winter, I sweated, for which she thought that I was tortured with a disease.
Hi: Then what was your feeling towards the painting? Why did you change your mind suddenly?
Zhu: I changed my mind as soon as I went through the door and saw the painting. Of cause, that was a perfect painting. Full of vividness, it was not inferior to those created by any oil-painters from Sichuan, which showed that its creator was fairly brilliant. However, suddenly I found I was standing in front of an oil painting. Every day I had been practicing handwriting with a Chinese writing brush, painting with Chinese techniques on a blanket, pondering over famous Chinese painters such as Shi Tao, Zhu Da and Huang Gongwang - I had spent nearly my lifetime on them, but at last what was created by me was an oil painting. Shocked by such an idea, I broke the partnership with the girl on the spot. Then I paid her and destroyed the painting.
If I did not have such experience, the idea of engaging in oil paintings would linger on my mind. It seems that anyhow I cannot make a way by drawing oil paintings.
I Do Not Like Getting Together with Other Artists
Hi: What was your living condition in the early 1990s like?
Zhu: Then I rented a house, in which I have lived for 7 years, at the west gate of People’s University in Haidian District. With two bedrooms and a living room, it was 60 square meters. Initially the rent was 1300 yuan, and then it gradually rose; when I left, it was 2500. Most of my works were created there.
Hi: Why did not you live near the Winter Palace (Yuanmingyuan)?
Zhu: Then a lot of artists were living by the Winter Palace, and sometimes I went there, dining with them. However, I do not like getting together with other artists, so I chose to settle in Wanquanzhuang which was not too far from there. I remember an artist who lived there married a beautiful and virtuous nurse from Australia. Sometimes I went there to have a meal and visited them in passing.
Hi: How do you keep such distance in creation?
Zhu: An artist must keep distance from another. Drawing is not hunting in which people have to explore the way in convoy.
Recently I only created 6 small paintings, each 4 feet in folio, every year. I am planning to improve the painting technique.
Hi: Does the painting “Two Red Banners” have something to do with your trial of new techniques?
Zhu: Yes, but many do not understand what I am doing, saying that now I have turned to draw abstract paintings. That is not the fact. What I have changed is in techniques. Indeed, the “Banner” series highlight the draperies, as the proverb going, “In Cao Zhongda’s paintings, the clothes are as tight as they are wet; while Wu Daozi can make the painted belts fly with wind.” In ink and wash paintings, lines are critical. However, in modern times we cannot copy the robes drawn by ancient painters. Then I think I can cover red banners in my works: meetings in China are often held with rows of red banners as the background.
Hi: Attributing everything to techniques can simplify the matter. However, haven’t you considered the political significance of the objects you have chosen?
Zhu: Well, sometimes an artist will avoid showing political or descent issues, because he is afraid of being remarked “he is painting just for the occasion.” Sometimes, the adoption of a political theme will half destroy the quality and taste of a painting. People consider that creating political paintings just needs boldness, but I think techniques are also important. I draw red banners because they are familiar to the public. I only want to know what modern objects will be like in ink and wash paintings, without any political intention. We have never lacked forefathers good at drawing draperies, such as the creators of “Eighty-seven Immortals” and “Ladies Wearing Flowers”, all of whom are much more brilliant than me.
We Are All Consuming the Previous Subject Matters
Hi: Would you like to discuss the changes made beyond techniques?
Zhu: Then we come to subject matters. Now I am in my 40s, the period to create excellent works for artists. However, I feel that all that one can draw have been covered, and there is nothing new to me, so the modern paintings cannot arouse my emotion.
Hi: You said there was nothing new in the paintings created after 1996. Haven’t the modern environment produced any new impact?
Zhu: Artists born in the 1950s and 1960s, who are entitled “1985 New Painters” and “After-1980 New Painters”, are all consuming the previous subject matters now. In most cases they are not interested in modern subjects and they have not the rights to show such interest. Who have such rights are those born in the 1970s, 1980s and even 1990s, and they can also seize the essence of modern subject matters more accurately.
Hi: What about you? During about 15 years, haven’t you tried to express something new?
Zhu: I am the same with them. The newest thing I have touched is rock and roll. I cannot bear the cartoons.
Hi: I do not think the problem lies in whether they are cartoons or not. Now you are living a modern life, so what will drive you to paint without new stimulus?
Zhu: For me, paintings are merely done for making money and living, and all the artists I have mentioned are all similar with me. Indeed, every painter making a high-sounding talk has no idea about innovation. If someone says he can make the breakthrough, then I want to ask him some questions like “Do you have new creative concepts or new techniques?” and “What kind of breakthrough have you made?” because at least I want to innovate in techniques.
I have to say that now most of us are consuming the previous resources for making money and a better life. Besides, the young artists’ works also lack vividness and the power to shock the audiences. Of course, the modern society itself has no shock, either. Artists are nothing but parasites. The society is so quiet that you have no chance to do anything special that are isolated from its background.
Hi: Do you think you are the same with the artists you have described?
Hi: Don’t you want to make a change?
Zhu: I want to. However, I am nothing but a parasite keening on eating and living and fearing death, so what can I change?
Hi: Well, if we go on the general discuss on society, then we have to stop here. Does not an artist need a personal change?
Zhu: As an artist, I want to make a change now. At present, I want to improve the painting techniques. Breakthrough is indispensible when we are trying to make ink and wash paintings contemporary. I will persist in my career as long as I can lead my life, because I am still addicted to painting. To tell the truth, recently I have no passion to paint, and it seems that nothing is worth doing except for improving the techniques. For his lifetime, an artist will do three things. Firstly, create an excellent painting. By “excellent painting”, I mean you must have a splendid idea which can record the characteristic of the time. Secondly, create or change a technique as Richter who has brought the oil-painting technique to its peak and aroused a visual revolution. Besides, numerous artists imitating him have got rich. Thirdly, change a material. For example, ink and wash paintings have been drawn on rice paper for several thousands of years and maybe we can make a reasonable change in the material. Criteria for measuring an artist’s performance are nothing more than the three. Up to now, I have achieved none of them. Innovation does not surely mean success, and now I am pondering over it. All the three points are worth consideration.
A Depressed Parasite of the Society
Hi: The expression in the eyes of the characters in your paintings always makes me associate them with Zhu Da’s works.
Zhu: I love the style, especially the sense and impact of oppression, of his paintings very much. I have imitated Yan Zhenqing’s calligraphy since my childhood, but now my handwriting is not better than a high school student. By contrast, by seizing the features of Zhu Da’s writing I can imitate him so well: maybe we have something in common in the inner heart. My paintings also often borrow the “fish’s eyes” from his, and they look perfect.
Hi: You have mentioned “oppression” for several times. What makes you feel so depressed?
Zhu: I feel depressed because I always think that artists contribute little to the society. Artists are social parasites who can change nothing. No revolution or social movement was led by an artist.
Hi: When do you begin to realize such an oppressive problem?
Zhu: From the very beginning.
Hi: You have kept close contacts with rock and roll scene, so why do not you change your career?
Zhu: It is too late. I did not have the idea until I have painted for 20 years. A person will lose his hot temper when he is busy with living all day. However, when you are living well off but old, you will feel you do not have the most basic rights such as voting. It is rather oppressive that no one takes you as a person. All artists, from the “1985 New Trend of Thought movement” to the “Post 1989 New Art”, wish to have say in the society as a member of the masses.
People born in the 1960s always carry social responsibility on their shoulder, questioning why the society remains unchanged after so many years. It is said that China’s society is at a transition stage when talents and excellent works should boom. However, I have a different opinion. It appears that China is transiting while indeed now it is staying still on the spot.
Hi: Your recent works give us such a feeling that you have nothing to say. You draw draperies, patterns on porcelains and flower baskets, and it seems that they have nothing to do with your anger.
Zhu: It is true. Indeed they are casual sketches created when I was doing experiments on the function of various painting techniques. You saw them? Sorry!
文/安息香 摄影/梅远贵 图片提供/朱伟