Phantoms from the Past – Zhang Enli at the Royal Academy of Arts

Portrait of Zhang Enli at Royal Academy x K11 Art Foundation. Courtesy of Thomas Alexander .Photography.
Zhang Enli’s self portrait in the Life Room, Royal Academy. Courtesy of the artist and K11 Art Foundation.
View of Zhang Enli’s studio at the Royal Academy of Arts
View of Zhang Enli’s studio at the Royal Academy of Arts
View of Zhang Enli’s studio at the Royal Academy of Arts
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CoBo Social Chinese Abstraction Series

Taking up a month-long residency at the Royal Academy of Arts, Chinese artist Zhang Enli’s reflects on his 1990s Shanghai studio, time and importance of spontaneity.

TEXT: Christie Lee
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and K11 Art Foundation

Portrait of Zhang Enli at Royal Academy x K11 Art Foundation. Courtesy of Thomas Alexander .Photography.

 

Entering the Life Room at the Royal Academy of Art is to embrace the art world of classical academia: high-ceilings and windows, gently tiered wooden seating, Greco-Roman sculptures and skeleton drawing aids, both human and equine. As if dropped by an enormous crane, Zhang Enli’s wooden walk-in container squats at the front of this hallowed room. This wooden studio seems simultaneously enticing – its entrance is angled towards the doorway – and unashamedly temporary. The artist has created a time-capsule. This shrunken pine box has become his studio as a young artist in the 1990s: a deftly understated, nostalgic mish-mash of cigarette packets, wrinkled tubes of paint and glue sticks on the floor.

“In this confined space, I feel as if I’m being transported to the early 90s. It provides quite a disorienting experience. As my Shanghai studio was very small, being in this equally tiny space conjures memories of how I used to paint,” the artist notes.

 

Zhang Enli’s self portrait in the Life Room, Royal Academy. Courtesy of the artist and K11 Art Foundation.

 

In person, Zhang is reserved yet polite, quiet but alert. As one of the most widely collected Chinese artists, Zhang has had solos at Institute of Contemporary Art in London, Hauser and Wirth, Il Museo di Villa Croce in Genova, and of course K11 Art Foundation, which is sponsoring the artist’s residency at the RA.

That hasn’t always been the case.

Born in Jilin in 1965, the Wuxi Technical University, Arts and Design Institute graduate’s ascent to the global art stage was slow. During the 90s, when political pop and cynical realism were all the rage, Zhang bucked the trend, instead choosing to paint everyday objects, filling his canvases with buckets, ashtrays and tin chests.

In recent years, the artist’s works have taken on more abstract forms but visitors to the artist’s Open Studio at the RA are offered a peek into his earlier aesthetic. Yet, rather than a retrospective parading the artist’s accomplishments, the open studio is – as befitting the artist’s personality – of a much subtler affair, allowing both the artist and viewer to ruminate on the threads that connects the 90s to the present.

 

View of Zhang Enli’s studio at the Royal Academy of Arts

 

Personal but also laid bare for the world to see, the studio is a form of prosthetic memory, an extension of the artist’s consciousness, if you will. The studio set-up also speaks to the fragility of these memories. Paintings are haphazardly tacked onto walls, also speaks to a sense of spontaneity, amidst the lingering fragility, as if a gust of wind could blow away everything in a spilt second. The selection of pine also appears deliberate. Like all natural materials, its surface bears the markings of age, but it’s also porous, compared to say, plaster or steel. Here, the line between the public and private is blurred. As we peer at the myriad of paintings that Zhang did over the years, we are also conscious that beyond the box lies a different time and space. “This box is very much of the now, the past and the future. it transcends time,” the artist says.

Within the time capsule, on opposing walls are two (new) paintings of bilious looking humans being attacked by enormous hounds. The dogs have gentle, benign faces. On the right is the English dog, and on the left, the Chinese dog. The artist notes how western art has portrayed dragons as evil beasts, killed by heroes, including Saint George, patron saint of England. The polarised perceptions of the dragon in the west and the east play a role in understanding this pair of paintings, in which identifying the oppressor and the oppressed is problematic. There is a simple sketch of a looped thread on another wall; a closer look at the human versus canine battle reveals a thick, blood-red thread winding across the bunched sinews and haunches. Zhang’s thread is one that runs through our lives, a force and passion which can either be knotted, jammed and strangled, or allowed to run free. It’s a recognition that our life is as much governed by affects as rationality.

Indeed, one might argue that Zhang’s career has thus far mirrored the history of art itself, from figurative representations of real-life subjects and objects to the abstract expressionism in the recent Space Paintings. Having dressed entire rooms – both literal and makeshift – at the K11 Art Foundation and ICA, the artist’s Space Paintings are immersive in its most literal sense, often allowing the environment, every stroke and lashes of paint, every line and curve within it, to slide into the artist and viewer’s consciousness. There is a decimation of the relationship between viewer as subject, and art as object. It is also testament to the fact that Zhang appear to be aiming for a more complex, layered subjectivity as he opens himself, his art up to different encounters. And thus in recent years, rather than paint what a tin chest or ashtray might look like in real life, Zhang’s paintings are a freer, wilder celebration of life.

 

View of Zhang Enli’s studio at the Royal Academy of Arts

 

The artist beckons us to the far corner of the room, from where his container becomes merely an object like any other, devoid of any significant meaning. It becomes merely a shape. From this vantage point, the artist says, the container joins the list of other objects in the room: the ladder, for example, and the railings which J.M.W Turner once leant on. Yet, the artist is also aware of the power of these objects – the lives they lead. “[They] are mirrors, reflecting the human form.”

Beyond Zhang’s studio, a set of multi-tiered benches, the ones used in blackbox theatres, beckons tired feet. The line between subject and object is blurred further: am I the observer peering out, or have I and the pine box become objects to be gazed at?

 

View of Zhang Enli’s studio at the Royal Academy of Arts

 

“I definitely feel different. When I worked in my Shanghai studio during the 1990s, nobody would come and see what I was doing. Here, the studio is open to the public. It becomes a display of an imperfect space,” he muses. But perhaps this display of imperfection, a recognition of one’s vulnerability, also testifies to Zhang’s maturity as an artist. Making a full circle around the room, we arrive once again at the entrance to the studio. Behind the artist’s back are two large self-portraits, their canvas crudely pinned to the wall. On the left, the memento mori: the full cycle of life, from Zhang Enli’s boyhood, through the present day, and to death, represented by a skull-shaped empty space. To the right of this, the artist as Janus, looking downcast in present day, and meeting the future face-on as an old man. An optimism of a kind.

 

 

K11 Art Foundation and the Royal Academy of Arts’ three-year partnership

As the first Chinese artist in residence at the Royal Academy of Arts, Zhang Enli’s open studio is part of a 3-year partnership between RA and the K11 Art Foundation that aims to foster artistic and cultural exchange. In November 2018, London-based artist and RA School alumnus Paul Schneider will travel to the KAF artist village in Shenyang, where he will work alongside local artists and craftsman to create a work that will be exhibited in early 2019.

 

 


 

Christie Lee is an arts journalist. Her articles have been published in Frieze, Artsy Editorial, Yishu, Randian, Artomity and The Peak magazine. A graduate of McGill University, she lives in London and Hong Kong.
 

 

 

 
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