Oriental Art·Master, November 2013
Zhu Wei: Use Traditional Ink To Tell A Modern Story
By Li Xueyi
As a native Beijnger, Zhu Wei, a 60's generation, just like Cui Jian and Wang Shuo, is the "balls under the red flag", who are destined to go through ups and downs, along with China's Marketization, under the huge influence of tradition. Zhu Wei, a witness of the 30 years development of contemporary art, born in the 60s of last century, belongs to the very first group of distinguished contemporary Chinese ink artists, who are recognized by the western art galleries and auction houses in the nineties of the 20th century. His early works include The Story of Beijing, Comrade Captain, Sweet Life, and so on. Contemporary Chinese ink and wash painting flourished in the early 1990s with two directions appearing: one was from the Western context, by using pure western art language to interpret art works; the other was to stick to the Chinese context, by using Chinese traditional language especially literati landscape painting language. After entering into the 21st century, when the boundary of contemporary art was continuously broken and adjusted, what is "contemporary" has been reinterpreted again. How does the "traditional" and "contemporary" convert from each other? Oriental Art · Master interviewed the contemporary ink and wash practitioner Zhu Wei to discuss the relationship between the traditional and contemporary ink and wash, as well as other questions drawn from this.
Oriental Art · Master: Today when everyone are chasing for the "New Ink Art", do you think whether this definition is a misreading of "traditional"?
Zhu Wei: Contemporary ink and western contemporary art share the same standard and definition, while only the material is not the same. Contemporary ink and wash can be a continuation of tradition in material and painting method, however, its concept and ideas must be consistent with the western contemporary oil painting, modern and contemporary art, including installation, conceptual art, behavior art, and so on. There must be contemporary consciousness, and based on which it is so called contemporary ink and wash. Otherwise, the contemporary ink and wash will become a dead corpse suddenly standing up from its coffin, which is wrong.
Oriental Art · Master: How do you understand the word "contemporary"?
Zhu Wei: What is happening today is grasped in time and accurately described by living artists, which is contemporary art. If a living artist paints a story happened in Song Dynasty, although this artist is a 80's generation or 90's generation, his artwork should not be seen as contemporary art.
Oriental Art · Master: If everything in the past can be called traditional, how could we define contemporary art?
Zhu Wei: Today is tomorrow's yesterday, but if the contemporary in today is not accepted by the history in the future, then there is no contemporary. The so-called contemporary depends on whether it can be accepted many years later. If you paint a thing without any feature of the time or characteristics of the era, it is not contemporary. For example, the painting "Han Xizai Evening Banquet" told a story only happened at that time. Even what we consider as traditional or classical things was very contemporary in its time. "Along the River During the Qingming Festival", "Han Xizai Evening Banquet", and "Ladies with Head-pinned Flowers", were all reflecting the reality of their era, and were all very contemporary in their days.
Ink painting has a history of several thousand years, while oil painting has been imported into China only for more than 100 years. The oil painting itself is more than 700 years old, while modestly speaking, ink painting is more than 2700 years...if not so modestly, four thousand years. Ink and wash painting always faces the problem of traditional and contemporary, because by using brush and ink inherited from tradition to paint contemporary things, the creation process itself is a conflict.
Oriental Art · Master: You took ink and wash as creation medium at the very first, so, did you consider breaking through these boundaries at that time?
Zhu Wei: In the beginning, people painted to show their emotions after they satiated, and then, painting was subdivided into oil painting, ink painting, etc. When social reality changed, there were so many subjects emerging, and artists had not time to think it over. Regardless oil or ink, the fact is the eagerness to express, not to think too much. It was taking risks to paint some subjects reflecting reality, thus if you think too much about results, it's likely you dare not to paint.
Oriental Art · Master: In different stages of your creation, did your understanding of tradition have ever changed?
Zhu Wei: I respect, even worship the tradition! Except for limitation of a person's ability, the traditional painting techniques are quite enough for expressing. Only the observation of things and manner of judgments inherited from our tradition and traditional ink and wash can express the contemporary accurately, since the traditional manifestation mode is more in accord with Chinese way of thinking, creation and observation. By returning to the traditional standard, every piece of my contemporary ink painting is using the traditional ink and wash to tell a modern story. This standard is the inheritance of tradition.
Oriental Art · Master: Other than various visual manifestation modes of various mediums, what do you think is the support matter behind the all kinds of creations at present?
Zhu Wei: In the mid-1980s, the development of art was pushed by artists spontaneously. For instance, to see what the West has...basically it was imitation. Later, the in the early 1990s, foreign capital starts to promote art, then we began to understand art fairs and biennials...; and later than that, in the mid twentieth century, the capital involvement started to revalue the artworks. In the beginning an artist might sell a painting for one hundred Yuan, while at that time the same painting could worth a million. And now, the contemporary art is driven by capital completely. The artists have become a vassal and lost their voice, and the capital is speaking. During the gold rush in America, more than a decade seldom people became rich, and there were tombstones of gold-diggers everywhere, but what the gold rush accomplished is Levi's who sells Jeans.
Oriental Art · Master: About the collectors you know, do you think whether the foreign collector and domestic collector share the same cultural cognition?
Zhu Wei: I have a very strong feeling about it. In the early 1990s when I had an exhibition abroad, two collectors found me and told me that they like my painting very much, but they need three years to pay for it by installments. And three years later, they did pay off my painting. These two collectors had rental housing, but they love paintings, and for a painting they would rather spread the payment over three years. However in China, people take loans for apartments or cars, but few people buy paintings in installments. Thus different art education brings up different cultural cognition.