KUART, September Issue, 2011, Published by Jiangxi Fine Art Press, p. 84
The New Utopia under the Red Flag - Zhu Wei’s Comment on Contemporary Ink-and-Wash Painting
Journalist: Yu Haiyuan
KUART (Hereinafter referred to as “Ku”): It seemed that you did not have a clear concept about “contemporary art” when you began to create ink-and-wash paintings with distinct personal style in the early 1990s, and the ink-and-wash painting circle was relatively conservative, so were you sure about what you were doing then?
Zhu Wei (Hereinafter referred as “Zhu”): No, I was not. Starting from nothing, everyone was groping then; but we all felt that something was going to happen, or some certain paintings should be painted. No one mentioned contemporary art frequently, and the guys who do so now were mostly not heard at that time. Some people began to explore the realm of contemporary ink-and-wash paintings. For example, Wei Dong and I began to deal with figures while Gu Wenda, who went to America later, researched landscapes and ideas then. Besides, there were also some painters who were dealing with rice paper, and I did not know exactly what they were doing or enjoy their works. I was sober to know that only a few artists, or several of them, were engaging in drawing figures of contemporary ink-and-wash paintings. What they were doing was inheriting and improving this kind of painting and helping it join the stream of contemporary art; while others were trying to make the painting contemporary on the basis of negating it by revoluting rice paper or changing the painting material.
Artists, including those oil painters, were not sure at that time, so they painted carefully, cautiously and slowly, spending much of their time waiting and looking.
Ku: Have you come across any difficulties or problems when expressing yourself and your surrounding realities with the traditional technique of “fine brushwork without outlining”?
Zhu: One of the advantages of this technique is it can downgrade the importance of lines which is most emphasized in ink-and-wash paintings to accentuate the design of figures and narration function of the picture. Wei Dong, Xu Lei and I have persisted in using it till now. But it also has a deficiency: the lines are too weak, for which the requirement for colors is increased. Therefore, as you can see, our ink-and-wash paintings are all bright in color and look dazzling.
Ku: In the early 1990s, there was a trend of revolution on ink-and-wash paintings, such as “experimental ink-and-wash paintings”, which was nothing more than directing the creation of such paintings with the theories of Western modern and post-modern art. However, you had never given up the traditional painting techniques, channeling a more personalized way. Then what made you so resolute and refuse to follow the trend blindly?
Zhu: As I have talked about, the creation of our contemporary oil paintings began from the early 1990s or the late 1980s, taking Western modern and post-modern artistic theories as the guideline. Facts have shown that these oil painters achieved great success. However, these theories are not applicable to our practice of making ink-and-wash paintings contemporary, because the theorists and critics who put out them did not know what ink-and-wash paintings were at all, and these theories were created for oil paintings, dramas, operas and classic ballets: it was not their duty or obligation to propose something for Chinese art. Therefore, it seems that the Western artistic theories are not fully applicable to ink-and-wash paintings, just like a traditional Chinese dish will taste bad if it is cooked in a western way. Thus we must persist in our own painting techniques and apply them in making our works contemporary. From then to now I always believe that the notions and theories of contemporary art and contemporary ink-and-wash paintings, which evolved from our own traditional culture with thousands of years of history, have never appeared: they lag behind. Having no applicable theories and no time to wait, we can only make a trial ourselves without any previous experience for support or reference.
Ku: The design of figures in your paintings is very special. Then where is it from? Have you protected yourself to it?
Zhu: People have been fully fed up with the great narratives as well as the works themed after glorious revolution during the Cultural Revolution. Consequently, they began to focus on individuals, personality and specific person after the implementation of the reform and opening policy. I am also a person, so some of the figures in my paintings have been endowed with my own image: others may be not willing to appear in my works. Indeed what I have done is to return to the tradition further. A lot of ancient Chinese classical paintings have chosen common people, such as the neighbors, young men or young ladies, as the figures, while few of the painters then painted for celebrities, emperors or eunuchs.
Ku: Is the design of the figures based fully on the impression of picture? Or does it imply some cultural metaphor?
Zhu: During painting, I concentrated fully on the impression given by the pictures, and I did not realize the metaphor and cultural connation the pictured carried until they had been finished. I am not sure whether I could create them if I had taken the expression of these things as my purpose.
Ku: Your “Sketch No.4” created in 2002 has impressed me very much. I learnt that it was your work as soon as I saw it, although there was only half of someone’s back in it. How did you acquire such intense personality?
Zhu: The main themes of oil paintings then were individuals and oneself, so I thought that these could also be applied to ink-and-wash paintings. Facts showed that my idea could not only be realized but also succeed. No one had dealt with ink-and-wash paintings in such way before I did, so I made a start.
Ku: Your paintings are fairly beautiful, but there are also something cruel covered under such beauty. Have you expected that?
Zhu: They beauty you have seen is brought by the whole painting. As you said just now, what hides behind are the description of the cruel reality, or the painfulness. My 20 years of painting career can be divided into two parts. In the first half of it I was a narrator or story-teller. I expressed much and I was eager to make myself understand, so my paintings then, such as the series of “The Story of Beijing”, “Sweet Life” and “New Positions of the Brocade Battle” created in 1993, as well as the series of “China Diary”, “Go West”, “Supreme Treatise on Moral Retribution” and “Diary of the Sleepwalker” painted in 1996, were more like serial novels with pictures. I began to emphasize the artistic conception, or implication of ink-and-wash paintings from 2002 and 2003. Then the pictures became succinct and some of them were extremely concise, such as “Great Water” and “Vernal Equinox” made in 2003, “Utopia” in 2005 and “Two Red Flags” in 2008.
Although the pictures have been changed, I am still focusing on the painfulness, frustrations and indifference one have to face in reality, as well as my question about truth, kindness and beauty.
My motive, basis and passion of painting lie in the concentration on the situation and changes of people under different circumstances, just like a rock singer who can only roar out when he has to release his anger and emotion.
Ku: The title of many of your works show that you are sentimental like a traditional man of letters, while the works themselves tell us that such sentiment is only a kind of excuse or cover used to express your doubt and irony towards the reality. Do you think you are a literator?
Zhu: There is no literators now, and what is common are people with a literator’s sentiment: I am among them.
Tradition is formed by gradual accumulation. Each day in the history was new, with something contemporary and advanced then. Therefore negating tradition means denying the later contemporariness and advancement.
Ku: How do you integrate traditional Chinese literators’ interest with contemporary artists’ concern on reality, which seem contrary to each other?
Zhu: I am sorry to say I have never done so, because it, just like asking a dead person to drink with you, is impossible. What we have done, at best, is studying the ancient people. As I have mentioned in another article, after we discovered the chimes made in Han Dynasty, someone made up some music applicable to the instrument. Everyone knows that there was no musical staff or numbered musical notation in that age, so it is impossible for the music then to be handed down in a written way. If it was transmitted orally, it would change a lot and lose its original nature. Therefore, what they did was introducing a fake to the audience and cheating them. It is not serious of them to take something made up into an authentic one.
Ku: Many artists, especially those engaging in ink-and-wash paintings, saw restriction, mode and style rather than beneficial things while retrospecting the tradition, so they shifted to video or installations for innovation. Then it is rather difficult to innovate while persisting in the tradition. What is your opinion?
Zhu: To achieve that, artists, especially ink-and-wash painters, have to be patient and endure loneliness. Even if creating contemporary ink-and-wash paintings required much skill as well as savvy.
It is easy to draw with traditional ink-and-wash painting techniques and modern ideas: just paint the reality you have seen and understood. However, you can never create a work if you always want to make something queer and uncommon.
Ku: Some artists have said that what we have now are only problems on contemporary art but not those on ink-and-wash paintings themselves. Do you agree?
Zhu: Nonsense. Contemporary must be realized by specific artistic forms such as painting, sculpture, installation, performance art, video and sound, and the problems you come across when depicting the reality and expressing your ideas are just the problems on contemporary art. We all like nutritious foods, and the nutrition must be taken in through eating vegetables, meat and seafood. Nutrition is not concrete and cannot be cooked and served on a plate. The same goes for contemporary art.
Ku: We can expect that foreign critics will never give up the opportunity to discuss your works from a political view, which may go against your original intention. What is your opinion on such misreading?
Zhu: The status quo of China’s society is just like this: we Chinese have taken it for granted that the slogans have been posted everywhere. However, foreigners have not been accustomed to such phenomenon so they are rather sensitive to them. They have paid no attention to KFC and McDonalds in my paintings: they have grown up with them so they will feel it is nothing special. Now we are still living in a society full of power politics which even appears in the artistic works. Therefore, I can tolerate such misreading. Of course, an artist using too many political symbols will be considered grandstanding and incompetent in creation.
Ku: Why did you take “red flags”, which had been appeared in “Utopia” series, as an independent theme in your later paintings?
Zhu: I did it considering from the aspect of techniques. “Clothes painted by Cao Zhongda appear wet, and belts drawn by Wu Daozi seem floating with wind”, and we can also apply the ancient technique to expressing modern subject of matters, seeing who can do better. Red flags are common to people and may not arouse any emotion now. However, they have never been depicted comfortably.
Ku: It seems that you have slowed down recently. Are you controlling your pace of creation on purpose?
Zhu: Yes, I am. Now I will draw 6 paintings a year. I think that I should paint less without new ideas. Most of my time is spent in calligraphy.
Ku: From your works created this year, we see that you have tried something new in both techniques and expression. What changes have been made in your creative ideas and painting techniques?
Zhu: I am indeed trying, but I have made few changes.
Ku: You are a painter, sculptor, writer and director. What kind of common pursuit is leading your interest?
Zhu: I am an ink-and-wash painter, so ink-and-wash painting is everything for me. Besides painting, ancient painters would also play the zither, write poems and essays, or even talk about various theories as followers of rich people. Contemporary painters have no chance to do those things, but we can do something the ancient people could not do. For example, in my spare time, I also make woodcuts, create sculptures in the factory, write columns for artistic magazines and shoot films for rock bands. However, all of those must be based on and reflect ink-and-wash paintings.
Ku: You have done many other things besides painting in these years. What will you concentrate on then?
Zhu: I will concentrate on calligraphy and ink-and-wash paintings. As an ink-and-wash painter in such age, I have got mature in both of my thoughts and skill, so I am expecting to create some outstanding works.