The Human Experience Through Zhang Jian-Jun’s Cosmopolitan Vision of Art

Installation view, Zhang Jian-jun, "Human Traces", chi K11 art museum, Shanghai, 2021. Image courtesy of K11.
Installation view of Zhang Jian-Jun’s “Human Traces” at chi K11 art museum, Shanghai, 2021. Image courtesy of chi K11 art museum.
Installation view of Zhang Jian-Jun’s “Human Traces” at chi K11 art museum, Shanghai, 2021. Image courtesy of chi K11 art museum.
Installation view of Zhang Jian-Jun’s “Human Traces” at chi K11 art museum, Shanghai, 2021. Image courtesy of chi K11 art museum.
Installation view of Zhang Jian-Jun’s “Human Traces” at chi K11 art museum, Shanghai, 2021. Image courtesy of chi K11 art museum.
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CoBo Social Market News Reports

Zhang Jian-Jun is a pioneer of contemporary art in Shanghai; he captured the zeitgeist of a Shanghai cautiously reopening to the world in the early 1980s, drinking in influences from Western art which he systematised within his Chinese art training. In his new show at Shanghai’s chi K11 art museum, Zhang has come full circle, reflecting on everything he has experienced in a way that brings him back to his Shanghainese roots.

 

TEXT: Jacob Dreyer
IMAGES: courtesy of chi K11 art museum

 

We all find our path to art and universal human experiences through our own particular, personal backgrounds; Shanghai native Zhang Jian-Jun’s charcoal sketches on show now at chi K11 art museum in Shanghai—originally developed as part of an artist residency at London’s Royal Academy of Arts—offers a series of meditations on the diversity of human traditions and life, and a summary of a life exploring art history and cultures from around the world. Although Zhang’s artistic practice is profound, it’s also deeply playful. Walking through the exhibition, titled “Human Traces”, we saw guests inspired to take selfies against an installation artwork depicting the outline of a human eye, with warm strobe lights shifting in colour. Lining the walls were sketches portraying Zhang’s friends and strangers he met from London and Shanghai, Greek Gods and Buddhas that inspired him; and we saw Shanghai imagining a place for itself in global art history.

 

Installation view of Zhang Jian-Jun’s “Human Traces” at chi K11 art museum, Shanghai, 2021. Image courtesy of chi K11 art museum.

 

Zhang’s story started in Shanghai of the late 1970s; a moment when the exhausting politics of past decades were starting to clear away. A young budding art student at the time, Zhang browsed bookstores for Western classics, searching for something unknown and outside of his experience. The artists whose influenced him most, such as Liu Haisu, Guan Liang, and his teacher Chen Junde, sought hybridised painting styles; they were inspired by Chinese landscapes and cityscapes, and the life around them, but looked to European painting techniques for formal innovation. Alongside formative encounters with European avant-garde painting—slightly dated, since artists at that time only had access to 19th century European trends, not the contemporaneous ones—Zhang spent time in Daoist temples and with the Dunhuang grotto paintings, infusing his work with a spirituality that has never left him. Zhang spent the ‘80s painting in Shanghai, but after his 1987 solo exhibition at the Shanghai Museum, the city had nothing left to offer him, so in 1989, the artist moved to New York. Here, he discovered a new world overseas, but his deeply rooted spirituality stayed with him, fermenting. During the following decades, he went between New York and Shanghai like a migratory bird; eventually, he accepted a teaching role at NYU Shanghai. All the while he continued to show his works in China and around the world, forming part of an artistic generation who sought to define a particularly Shanghainese cosmopolitanism.

 

Installation view of Zhang Jian-Jun’s “Human Traces” at chi K11 art museum, Shanghai, 2021. Image courtesy of chi K11 art museum.
Installation view of Zhang Jian-Jun’s “Human Traces” at chi K11 art museum, Shanghai, 2021. Image courtesy of chi K11 art museum.

 

When K11 Art Foundation organised a residency for Zhang at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2019, the artist started by interviewing a wide range of people he met in London, and in the residency exhibition, showed the sketches he had made of them with the interview audios playing. Reflecting on a life in art, inspired by works in the collection, Zhang made sculptures and sketches of statues stemming from a broad range of eras in art history, paying homage to European portraiture, the arts of Africa, and of course East Asian art practices. Back in Shanghai, he continued the practice, extending the project even further. The people he met in passing, artworks which inspired him, memories from his past; these are all part of Zhang’s cultural heritage. Zhang’s works in ink as well as sculpture connect to the archive he found in London and the everyday life that he has been living in cities around the world, but also offer the viewer a bridge to the future.

 

Installation view of Zhang Jian-Jun’s “Human Traces” at chi K11 art museum, Shanghai, 2021. Image courtesy of chi K11 art museum.

 

Faces in a crowd, captured in ink; sketches of artworks with the open-minded eagerness of a student—Zhang’s show comes from an artist who is still in love with his craft, still exploring different traditions. And yet, the works make us ask questions of ourselves too: How can we transcend cultural differences? Who are we and what will remain of our lives after we are gone? How can a contemporary artist like Zhang situate himself and his practice in conversation with art history, even when those artists are from a culture foreign to him? Here, art history becomes the furniture of a very old house in which we are living, and particular images like mirrors in which we see ourselves. How can we do justice to these traditions, and create original works? Zhang’s cosmopolitan vision of art records everything that he’s seen, but the questions he asks of us might inspire us to create, too.

 

Zhang Jian-Jun: Human Traces
19 March – 3 May 2021
chi K11 art museum, Shanghai

 

 
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