Silence and Storytelling in Zhang Xiaogang’s New Works at Pace

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

Zhang Xiaogang’s My Mother, 2012. © Zhang Xiaogang / Courtesy Pace Gallery. Photo by: Wang Xiang.

NEW YORK - The main difference between an umbilical cord and a power cord seems obvious: if you cut the latter, there will be no blood. To the extent that they are both connectors, metaphorically, one for establishing family bonds and the other for establishing linkage to modern civilization, they share the same visual effect. Last week, when I walked into Pace Gallery in New York’s Chelsea art district, I found Zhang Xiaogang’s (b. 1958) recent body of works telling a story about how collective and personal memories are transmitted through family members’ seeming inability to tell stories to each other about their own painful experience. And his new sculptural works, largely made in New York, are a mind-blowing tour-de-force of self-referential “reinterpretations” of his own painterly works. 

While autobiographical on the surface, Zhang’s works are relevant to many viewers because aesthetically, they evoke feelings about the universal aspect of fundamental human relationships. His latest burst of creative energy rubbed off on the enthusiasts that mobbed Pace’s opening reception, including artist Chuck Close and 2011 Miss China, Luo Zilin.

In Zhang’s works from the 1990s and early 2000s, such as the Bloodline: Big Family series, members of family resemblance huddle together against a largely grey and black background punctuated by a thread of bloodline, as illustrated by a lithograph (2003) sold at Sotheby’s during the Boundless: Contemporary Art sale (lot 88) in December 2012. By contrast, in My Father (2012), My Mother (2012) and White Shirt and Blue Trousers (2012), included in the current Pace show, family members painted in colors were divided by visible distance and seem to have a hard time relating to each other. A power cord appears to be the only common thread between their lives.

Bloodline: Big Family Series, lithograph numbered 120/199, 22-1/4” x 28-1/4”(2003).

Light bulbs and power cords are recurrent motifs in the later works from Zhang’s Forgetting and Remembering series (2001-2003), starting in 2003. These are objects that the artist observed during periods of solitude in his life, suggesting a sense of forlornness and attempt to seek connection. Memories and story telling are the essential ways through which one establishes connections with family and heritage. Considered among the most sought-after artists in contemporary China, Zhang Xiaogang is cerebral and self-reflective in his aesthetic approach. His psychologically charged paintings, raising the question about remembrance and history both at the personal and collective levels, lend themselves to interpretative frameworks that have been applied to dreams and trauma.

After years of studying the relationship between memory, trauma and testimonies based on the literature and art surrounding the Jewish Holocaust, World War II and other major historical atrocities, I think how the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) affected the psychological make-up of the contemporary Chinese society remains a relatively unmined field. The underpinnings of Zhang’s works address the essence of memory as being constantly reconstructed through the inner working of human minds and being transmitted through sometimes-tangential human connections. Revisionism resides not only in the domain of the political manipulation or re-appropriation, but also in the very nature of human psyche. Trauma, by the nature of its overwhelming impact, tends to subject the recovery of repressed memories to a painful reconstruction process characterized by belatedness and multiple reenactments.

Zhang Xiaogang’s White Shirt and Blue Trousers, 2012. © Zhang Xiaogang / Courtesy Pace Gallery. Photo by: Yang Chao.

I last saw Zhang in April 2011 during the opening of Diane von Furstenberg’s retrospective at Pace Beijing, on the eve of his 1988 painting Forever Lasting Love fetching HKD 79,060,000 (hammer price with buyer's premium; approximately, US$10 million) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, a new world record for Chinese contemporary art at auction. Since then, he had undergone his second heart surgery and for a while, on instruction of his doctor, tried to cut back his workloads. Zhang’s recent works remind me of what Edward Hopper (1882-1967) said: “Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world. No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination.” Like Hopper, Zhang is concerned with, to quote Hopper again, “the inner life of a human being” that “is a vast and varied realm.” And as in many Hopper paintings, the human interaction is nearly non-existent in Zhang’s works. The figures seem to be suspended in time. And his paintings resemble a sequence of unfolding dreams.

Zhang Xiaogang, Chiu-Ti Jansen, Leng Lin (President, Pace Beijing) and Arne Glimcher (Founder, Pace Gallery) in 2011.

When the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966, Zhang was eight years old and his parents were sent for “re-education” at a “study camp.” His mother reportedly suffered from schizophrenia, possibly a pre-existing condition exacerbated by the hardship. How did those years of separation impact the relationships among the family members? How did Zhang’s parents tell their children the stories about their own camp experience?  In My Mother, a bespectacled young boy gazes at his stoic, Mao-suited mother, while a light bulb hangs from the ceiling, with a power cord snaking down to meet an extension cord. The interior is a typical setting during the Mao era with the green color adorning the lower part of the wall. The silence between the mother and son is further exaggerated by the seemingly unbridgeable distance between them: how remotely they sit from each other at each end of the couch! The very elaborate manner in which the power cord curves through the air only accentuates the visual effect of its presence. It is as if the boy is looking to the mother as a source of illumination and connection, but has his wish denied.

In My Father, a young girl with braided hair, taking up the persona of “I” the artist, looks intently at her father, who is expressionless in his blue Mao suit and does not return any warmth. The daughter is sitting so close to the edge of her single sofa chair that one can almost feel her eagerness to get closer to the father. A light bulb dropping from the ceiling in the middle of the pictorial frame seems more a divider than a connector between the two human figures. By vicariously taking his daughter’s place and transferring his own relationship with his daughter into a stylized family situation, Zhang is emphasizing that certain emotions are not unique to a generation or a culture.

Zhang Xiaogang’s My Father, 2012. © Zhang Xiaogang / Courtesy Pace Gallery. Photo by: Wang Xiang.

White Shirt and Blue Trousers depicts a starched white shirt, a pair of neatly pressed navy blue trousers and several branches of plum blossoms, all displayed on a bed covered with white linen. A light bulb with a disconnected power cord is pressed underneath the branch. A pale red birthmark-like blemish, a constant motif in Zhang’s Bloodline and earlier works from the Forgetting and Remembering series, spills over on the white linen and white shirt. The yellow flowering plum with straight branches, known as lamei (literally, plum blossoms during the twelfth month of the lunar calendar), was a classical motif celebrated by poets and painters for centuries in China. Budding before all other plants, lamei flowering plum is the harbinger of spring – a time for renewal, and of the Chinese Spring Festival (a.k.a. Chinese New Year) – a time for reunion.  Since the flowering plum delivers delicate blossoms before fresh shoots of leaves, the sparse winter plum in full bloom silhouetted against the spare branches and stark landscape has become a metaphor for strength to endure the inclement climate. As poet Xiao Gang (503-551) wrote: “The flowering plum is the earliest to blossom, / She alone has the gift of recognizing spring.” 

But the promise of renewal and reunion carries with it the anticipation of imminent loss, as lamei flowering plum’s blossoms are short-lived. In Zhang’s work, the nearly surreal appearance of the luxuriant yellow blossoms on the bed only reinforces the image of a bleak internal landscape and suggests anxious waiting for a reunion with a missing person. Included in Sotheby’s upcoming Contemporary Asian Art sale, to be held on April 5 in Hong Kong, In-Out Series No. 9 (2008) shares a similar reference to a disconnected power cord. In that predominantly grey-tone painting, is the unfolded uniform in olive green, alluding to the combat uniform of the revolutionary army, telling a story about an absent family member?

In-Out Series No. 9, 2008. To be included in Sotheby’s Contemporary Asian Art sale (HK 0455) on April 5, 2013, lot 913.

The Position of Father (2013) further drives home the theme of missing connections: the extension and power cords in the foreground do not seem to power the lamp in the background, but instead point to the space beyond the picture frame. A large patch of pale yellow light rests on an unoccupied sofa seat to the viewer’s right, while a small bespectacled boy in an open-crotch onesie takes the seat to left. The boy’s posture is unmistakably adult-like, which, along with the identical teacups on the table, conjures up an image of being “head-and-shoulder” with the absent father figure.  

Zhang Xiaogang’s The Position of Father, 2013. © Zhang Xiaogang / Courtesy Pace Gallery.

The Pace show also includes Zhang’s first series of sculpture, a new medium that the artist has started wrestling with since 2008. On view for the first time in New York, the bronzes vary significantly in size (ranging from six inches to over five feet in height) and in painted finishes (some have a raw, flat surface, while others havea glossy glaze). Executed in a political-realist style reminiscent of the state-mandated sculptures of the Mao era, these sculptures are based on the archetypal babies, children and adolescents from Zhang’s paintings – his assistants confirmed to me that they were making the casting by reference to his old paintings. For instance, Boy No. 1 (2012) is a bust of a boy whose face is no stranger to Zhang’s fans. He has appeared in many of his works from the Bloodline and Forgetting and Remembering series, including a 2004 rendition, titled Bloodline: Boy, that was sold last year at Sotheby’s Contemporary Asian Art sale (lot 815A)  in Hong Kong. By focusing solely on the youthful and the idealistic, thus symbols with specific relevance to his generation, this sculpture series seems to be the artist’s ambivalent way of reviewing his own difficult boyhood and the first generation of Red Youth whose state of purity and innocence was so susceptible to influences.

Zhang Xiaogang’s Boy No. 1, 2012, 2013. © Zhang Xiaogang / Courtesy Pace Gallery.

Whenever people asked me why I translated into Chinese a book about the historical and psychoanalytical ramifications of the Jewish Holocaust testimonies, I always answered that my translation was a reaction to the resistance to understanding. Precisely because many people believed that an “outsider” is ill equipped to comprehend a historical event closely tied to the cultural identity of another people, my act of “translation” implicitly questioned that assumption. Zhang Xiaogang once said that Westerners might find his sources of inspiration, particularly with respect to the Cultural Revolution, difficult to grasp. Nevertheless, he believes that Westerners, like Chinese viewers of European works, access foreign art mainly through aesthetic feelings, not historical thoughts. For me, although I am a Chinese personally spared by the experience of the Cultural Revolution, I am searching to grasp how the Chinese of different generations are coming to terms with that collective experience and how parents are transmitting to their children the knowledge about that particular historical event.

Zhang once wrote in 2003 that “The images of my past have faded away in my present reality, but have also become more immediate in my dream—so much so that I often cannot tell whether they belonged to the past, or are an on-going drama. We feel that we have accumulated a lot of wealth [emphasis added] because of [our accumulation of] memories, but in our rapidly changing times the baggage of memories weighs us down like massive ‘debts.’ . . . Forgetting seems to be a survival instinct that enables us to march towards the future.”  This is a decision that every parent has to make: is my silence or telling a story a better way to prepare my children for the future?
Zhang’s personal history, with its collective references, may be easier to grasp by his generation that grew through similar ordeals; however, it resonates with aspects of every viewer’s own particular individuality because it appeals to the universal dimension of human experiences: one’s relationships with parents and oneself. There is no need to resort to Freudian theories to interpret Zhang’s self-styled “family romance” because we all live through our lives by reference to our connections with, or disconnection from, our primary caretakers. By persistently returning to the primal scenes of childhood, Zhang’s works invite us to reconsider: how do we apply a cross-cultural perspective in aesthetic appreciation without trivializing the unique nature of culture-conditioned experience?  

Zhang Xiaogang

Pace Gallery

March 29 - April 27, 2013

508-510 West 25th Street

New York, New York

Sotheby’s Contemporary Asian Art Auction

Hall 5, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre

April 5, 2013

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