Childhood memories have always played a more than significant role in the shaping of one's personality. Many artists have capitalized on their own repository of childhood memories, sometimes even traumatic ones, when searching for creative stimuli. To tap into an artist's vaulted unconscious is to decipher the symbolism hidden in the art. An exemplar of his most celebrated series, Mask Series 1998 No. 5 (Lot 999) is not only Zeng Fanzhi's allegory of a man caught in the modernizing forces of contemporary society, but harboured within the image is the artist's own struggles and insecurities in the face of social relations. A testament to his tender years, the work is rooted in his past yet at the same time, informs all that is to come.
Masks have become a necessity for the protagonist upon entering adulthood. A red scarf tied around his collar, a toy plane clasped in his right hand, he seems poised to toss it into the boundless blue sky. Pity, it is but a toy plane and it will never soar to great heights. The escalating fighter jet in the back, then, forms dramatic irony with his intentions. His lofty dreams defeated, he must express his dejection yet all his mask allows is a drop of tear that trickles feebly down his cheek. Paradoxes and contradictions abound in this composition, a still of a veritable tragedy, a pictorial elegy.
The picture is a man's eulogy for his bygone childhood. The red scarf tied around the protagonist's collar and the badge on his shoulder, in particular, possess a certain stigma for the artist himself—it refers to an unfulfilled dream that has continued to haunt him. The impact of rejection and exclusion persisted into the artist's maturity, rendering him an observer and giving birth to the air of detachment that permeates the Mask Series.
During the 1970's, to deny a little boy admission into the Young Pioneer's League and to deprive him of the little red scarf are traumatizing events. Zeng Fanzhi's class comprised of 54 students and only three were prohibited from the league: he was one of them. The Young Pioneer's League was formed by the Chinese Communist Party and is "a public organization for China's teenagers and children, it is an organization for them to learn about Chinese Socialism and Communism, it is a preparatory team for the development of these ideologies in society." 1970's was an era of collectivism and mass movement. To be an outsider, to be out of the commune, these would strip away a sense of belonging and thus feelings of joy that come from social acceptance and inclusion. "The other two boys (who were denied the scarf) really were disobedient, but I never was. No matter what I did, the teacher always reprimanded me." Zeng also said, "the teacher always told me that I was very arrogant, every day she would remind me...these warnings injured me emotionally...this has always plagued me." As a result, the other children would ostracize him, some even derided him and bullied him. He began to detest school and his grades started to plummet, more and more the distance between Zeng Fanzhi and the collective grew.
A troubling sentiment of loss characterized the formative years of the artist, and he inserts these layers into his art. "I am interested in expressing a person, an individual's attitude and state of mind. I endeavor to express through a direct reaction. I hope to convey this individual's countenance, emotion, psyche and my impression of this person." Zeng Fanzhi adds to the traditional mode of portraiture a tragic consideration of humanity. Behind the mask and its crossed eyes, beneath the heavy brushstrokes and oversized hands lie the oppression and distortion of one's inner psychology. Scars and cuts from his adolescence reveal themselves in the hidden corners of the picture.
Zeng's Mask Series have become iconic depictions of the many transformations that occurred in China in the 1990s: most notably, urbanization and the rise of commercialism and a "socialist market economy." The tension which arises from gazing at these masked figures resides in an almost resistance of history in order to come to terms with the present. The existence of living contradictions in contemporary China—a socialist, collective identity at odds with the newly formed individual identity—foster a strange and turbulent atmosphere, rooted in tradition, yet determined to evolve. During the Mao years, young people moved to the countryside to learn from the peasants, but with the end of the Cultural Revolution, China's cities became over populated with these same peasants looking for jobs and opportunities. Though Mao had championed the farmers and peasants as the beacon of Chinese communism, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, these peasants had become displaced and in their place, arose the young urbanite, secularized, fashionable, and savvy. The concept of self, of creating an identity in a rapidly growing urban landscape, ruled by the omnipresence of mass media and digital electronics, becomes urgent. This, undoubtedly, challenges Maoist philosophy of the social self, a piece and part of the collective, working of the collective good. The figures in Zeng's Mask Series grapple with the dilemma of self-expression, and while their clothes and their mannerisms may put them apart, they are inherently a representation of every Chinese person, living in post-cultural revolution and post-Deng era China.
Mask Series 1998 No. 5 is a manifesto on this very China and is also an intimate tale of a boy growing up.
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