Karen Smith and Jian-Jun Zhang first met at Shanghai’s inaugural Biennale in 1996. They recently collaborated on a project for Istanbul’s Pera Museum, for its current exhibition “Out of Ink: Interpretations from Chinese Contemporary Art,” curated by Karen, and which also features work by Xu Bing. CoBo hosted a conversation between the artist and the curator in the Cobo Salon in Hong Kong. The wide-ranging discussion delved into Jian-Jun Zhang’s early years as a young artist searching for a unique artistic language, the “bouncing” vicissitudes of fortune, and the impact of his first years in New York.
TEXT：CoBo Editorial Force
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist
Karen Smith (KS): I’ve known Jian-Jun Zhang now for more years than I probably care to remember, but we met in 1996, at the first Shanghai Biennale. Jian-Jun was one the first people to show very progressive work at that time. A lot happened before that as to how he came to be there at the Shanghai Art Museum at that time, and to be instrumental in making the first Shanghai Biennale happen. This goes right back to the core of your work, Jian-Jun. People describe your art as abstract, but I think there’s a lot of messages contained within it which are explicit – making it not entirely abstract. As an artist you have, from the very first, been experimental, been exploratory. Not necessarily fixed in one mode of working. You did not simply find something you were comfortable with and then just stay in that mode.
Let’s start at the beginning of your career. I wonder both what sort of education you received that then led you to the path that you began to take in 1979, an important year in Chinese (art) history. At that time, you started experimenting with different elements of culture but in a rather abstract way.
Jian-Jun Zhang (JJZ): I graduated from the Shanghai Theatre Academy. It’s important to remember that, despite the 1970s government policies, Shanghai was a city which had been heavily influenced by Western art. My professor came from a tradition of studying Western painting. This was a critical difference between Shanghai and Beijing. Another difference, as far as I recall, was that Shanghai artists tended to operate exclusively as individuals, rather than as part of a group. I always felt that the end of the Cultural Revolution gave us our first chance to be individuals, and that to subsume oneself into a group too early would be a mistake. However, despite the advantages of Shanghai, I was drawn to the interior of China, with an interest to see Yongle Palace and the caves of Longmen, Yungang, and finally Mogao.
KS: So, while everybody at that time would think being in Shanghai was such a privilege, what was the purpose of going on those trips? You had all of these wonderful influences that artists in other parts of the country weren’t exposed to, but you chose to leave that, and go back to what are very Chinese sites of historical importance. Why was that?
JJZ: The first time I went, it was a kind of co-incidence. I was with a group of young people, and it was a shock. I was confronting a very ancient and Chinese painting tradition, amazed by what I found in the mural paintings in those caves. This was a moment when education became three dimensional, introducing a spiritual quality, from the outside to the inner world. The influence of the caves on me was a kind of alchemy. It brought forth a turning point away from the new towards the old, and led me to transition from colour to black-and-white.
KS: What role did the universities play in the exhibition of your work?
JJZ: Alongside other artists, I showed my work in the “83 Painting Experimental Show” at Fudan University. In those days, there were very few venues for exhibition, and of course the government museums would not host us. I was working in the Shanghai Art Museum. At that time, it wasn’t described formally as an art museum, but an exhibition centre. The site at Fudan was an exhibition space, which implied something more temporary. The show was on for one day before being closed by the government. Soon after, I read criticism of my work in the newspaper.
KS: For people who don’t know about the climate of post-Cultural Revolution China, can you explain what that “criticism” meant at the time. Like, if there’s a bad exhibition, your works would be held up as an example of how not to paint, and publicly criticized, right? The artist would then be required to write a self-criticism as to how you would do better in future, right?
JJZ: Yes. The head of Shanghai Art Museum was actually quite nice. He always tried to protect me – he knew I was a young and sincere artist. One day he took me aside and asked me to write a self-criticism, because he couldn’t do any more to help resolve the problem I was facing. He said the cultural bureau had pointed out my name six times. When I asked him the reason, he replied that my work was deemed to be heavily influenced by bourgeois Western culture. I was astonished, because I was actually seeking to presenting Taoism, a Chinese tradition, in my work. This underlined a common thread in my life, which is the distance between my understanding of tradition from the way others understand it. I see tradition as a spiritual root which allows you to create in the open, meaning that artists can grow and expand ideas. The other way of seeing tradition is that it leads to an increasingly narrower output.
KS: So when you pointed out that the content of your work was deeply embedded in a grand tradition in Chinese culture, what happened to you?
JJZ: I became a doorman.
KS: You were demoted to the position of doorman.
JJZ: They also stopped my access to the carpentry rooms, which functioned as a back door for artists coming into the museum and avoiding the five-cent entry fee. Things change though. All of a sudden, I was re-admitted to the research department. Such were the vicissitudes of policy in the 1980s. Then in 1984, Mr Wiseman of the Wiseman Foundation came to China in person and bought one of my works for USD10,000. At the time, this seemed like more money than I could make in a lifetime. I also found myself in full alignment with a newly introduced Party policy, which was to promote private business. I was feted in the newspapers and on TV. It seemed that I was bouncing between hero and doorman.
KS: Please tell us about the materials you used at the time. From having made the sale of that first work, you had the possibility to buy new and better materials. Is that right?
JJZ: Broadly, my Taoist experience was at the heart of my work: colour had morphed into black and white, and I used a lot of natural materials, particularly stone, but later branches and wood. Ink on paper also represented a concert of nature and culture. This is a Taoist preoccupation; the search for integration, mixing together.
Certainly, some elements changed after the sale. I had been accustomed to working with very limited access to materials. I painted on canvases on the front, and then on the back too. Occasionally, I also painted over my canvases. One I repainted over five times. I earned sewing, so that I could create larger canvases by stitching small pieces of cloth together. At one point, I turned my bed sheet into a canvas. Usually, my stretching was rather basic too. However, even when I was poor, I would always buy good colour. The sale meant that I could work on larger images, five metres wide in some cases. I recall an artist who was a contemporary of mine asking me how I found the studio space to create such a work in 1985. The secret was that the museum wouldn’t allow me to use its studios, but I was able to sneak into the museum warehouse and work there.
KS: Then, in 1987 you had your first chance to go to the US. What I want to understand is how did you become aware of that opportunity; how did you know that such a grant even existed?
JJZ: I was visited one night by a friend who cycled over to my house unexpectedly. He told me that some artists were invited to gather at the home of the head of the Shanghai Academy on the following evening. Armed with photos of my work, I arrived to find that there were already 20-30 artists milling around – the vibe was rather like being in a doctor’s waiting room. One month later, I received a letter in the post from New York. Of course, I had to take it to a friend to translate. She congratulated me and said that the university wanted me to study there. I was delighted and she wrote to accept on my behalf. When they replied, it became clear that they were offering me a fellowship, not just the chance to study.
KS: You’re one of a handful, perhaps a half a dozen artists, who went to the US from China at that time. One might say that one characteristic you have in common is that a lot of you were working related to a spiritual element of Chinese culture, of traditional culture. Whether that was language itself or something more Taoist or more Zen. What impact did the US have on you on that first visit there?
JJZ: This was a tremendous opportunity: the chance to meet curators and fellow artists. To see work in museums and galleries. I discovered Rothko, Motherwell, Mondrian. In the 1980s in China, there were few opportunities to see paintings for real. Sometimes, I would see photographs or slides of paintings. More often, a friend who had seen a painting would describe it to me. Now I could see abstract expressionism in person, for example, and have my own journey of discovery. In fact, when I contemplated Mondrian, I could see the geometric shape, but it was still spiritual. My own work brought its spiritual influences of Zen and Taoism. Therefore, this American abstract movement felt like something different, but also like something similar. It represented an interesting potential for continued dialogue. And I’ve kept going in that spirit.
KS: Did your work change dramatically in that first period that you were in the US?
JJZ: Yes. My work grew bigger, stronger, heavier. I started using papier mache because rocks of that size would be too heavy. Inside the papier mache, I always put a real rock. This was a time of industrious creativity and output for me. One of my pieces was a metal pool filled with ink, and heated to create effects of rising inky steam. I was prolific. But when I created, I never thought about how to preserve the work or where it would be stored. People would ask me about it. They would ask how to look after such diverse work. I said, that’s your problem. When I create, I just want to do what I feel.
KS: But it’s unusual, having had a work that had sold for USD10,000 in those days, didn’t that change your perception of the value of what you were doing in any way?
JJZ: No. I guess I’m stubborn or I’m stupid!
KS: You returned to New York later, but you kept a very strong tie to Chinese culture or Zen/Taoist culture, I don’t know how you want to describe it. Can you describe a little bit about how being in New York was helpful, or not helpful in the context of your career?
JJZ: In New York you see so many different cultures and different people, living together and mixing. It’s like an extended survey of cultures. Distance played a not unhelpful role in interpreting China too. From a distance, you see the whole mountain.
KS: As an overall context, an important factor is that you’ve been an artist that has influenced other artists significantly. We see that both in your own work and in the role that you’ve played at the museum. In my experience, there wasn’t always a full appreciation in China of materials in a discussion about aesthetics. The interest was much more about symbolism of a piece and the conceptual ideas behind it. I remember the impact of the work of yours I saw in 1996, which was so good (a video and mixed media installation, which was ahead of its time). We’ve been fortunate to work on other projects together more recently where you also work in a slightly collaborative way, sometimes with your wife Barbara, who is also an artist. I just wonder how you tie all of these things together, in terms of where you are now. You work as a professor: you’re obviously very involved in nurturing the next generation. But your career moves steadily forward. When you look back at your early works, are there still traces of that formative year of 1979 visible in what you do today?
JJZ: Yes; a lot of my work today is all about our society and shared culture. How to integrate, transform it; the role of co-operation, conflict and competition. In the political or societal milieu or in spiritual life. I think those images still persist and thrive. As an artist, I began a somewhat solitary journey, choosing a kind of loneliness at the beginning as I learned and developed. As one becomes older, that role changes.
KS: Thank you. I’d like to conclude with reference to our exhibition in Istanbul. You mentioned you see similarities in American abstract art and differences too. I like the idea that people can be different. Today, everybody seems to want to blend into a homogenized international whole. We should be celebrating differences rather than just trying to dismantle borders in ways that only seem to create new barriers between us. Our current exhibition in Istanbul is about contemporary artists looking at the past. It presents artists making reference to what has gone before, but choosing not to view it or value it as the old guard would like them to. These artists are asking if that is okay? I hope the exhibition affirms it as being very much okay. This is exactly your view on tradition, how to throw it wide open, and stop it from closing in upon itself.
The conversation has been edited and abridged for publication.
About Jian-Jun Zhang
Jian-Jun Zhang was born in 1955 in Shanghai. In 1978, Zhang graduated from the Fine Arts Department of the Shanghai Theater Academy. In 1987-88, Zhang was supported by the Asian Cultural Council of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York to go to the US to do research and to create new artworks. Zhang was the Assistant Director and Head of the Art Research Department of the Shanghai Art Museum in 1986-1989. In 1986, Zhang won the First Prize at The First Shanghai Young Artist’s Exhibition, organized by the Shanghai Art Museum, China.
In 1989, he moved to the US and continued his work as an artist. In 1990, Zhang was honored with a grant from The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, New York, USA. In 1994, Zhang received The Gustavo Nicolich Fellowship at The Djerassi Foundation’s Resident Artist Program, California, and has a sculpture in the Permanent Collection. In 1995, Zhang was honored with an award at Art Matters Inc., New York, USA. In 1996, Zhang yet again won a grant at The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, New York, USA. In 1997, Zhang received a fellowship at The New York Foundation for the Arts for his Sculptural work, as well as at The Connemara Conservancy, Dallas, Texas. In 2002, Zhang won a grant from The Annie Wong Foundation, Hong Kong. Most recently, in 2014, Zhang received yet another fellowship at The New York Foundation for the Arts, The Gregory Millard Fellowship for his Sculptural works.
About Karen Smith
Karen Smith is a British-born writer and curator who first came to China from Hong Kong in 1992, with the express aim of investigating and documenting the new art emerging there. Based in Beijing ever since, she has been an instrumental actor in the contemporary Chinese scene through extensive critical writings, interviews and exhibitions to promote and articulate art and artists at the forefront of creative developments here — and when few others were on the ground to witness them. Smith is the author of a number of books including Nine Lives; The Birth of Avant Garde Art in New China (Timezone 8, 2006), and Ai Weiwei (Phaidon, 2009), and is currently working on a new book about Chinese art during the 1990s; among the many exhibitions she has curated are “Revolutionary Capitals” (ICA, London, 1999), “The Real Thing” (Tate Liverpool, UK, 2007) and, most recently, “Life Most Intense” (Ma Ke solo exhibition, Platform China, 2012).