Zhang Jian-Jun’s Human Traces: Interview with the Artist

Zhang Jian-Jun,  Artist-in-residence at London’s Royal Academy. Photograph © Alastair Fyfe.
Zhang Jian-Jun in the studio during his two-month residency. Photograph © Studio PB.
Portraits by Zhang Jian-Jun mixed among classical statues at the Royal Academy, London. Photograph © Alastair Fyfe.
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On the occasion of Zhang Jian-Jun’s two-month residency at London’s Royal Academy and the unveiling of his new mixed-media installation Human Traces last week, Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop sat down with the artist to discuss the notion of the human experience.

TEXT: Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop
IMAGES: Courtesy of K11 Art Foundation, Alastair Fyfe & Studio PB

Zhang Jian-Jun,  Artist-in-residence at London’s Royal Academy. Photograph © Alastair Fyfe.


When Chinese artist Zhang Jian-Jun arrived in London in July, his first visit to the British capital, he was keen to take in the sights and walk around. At Saint Paul’s Cathedral, he was intrigued by statues of cherubs and took some photos. One of these became the starting point of Human Traces, a new mixed-media installation that is currently on view at the Royal Academy Schools’ temporary studio where he recently completed his two-month residency, organized in partnership with K11 Art Foundation (KAF), Hong Kong.

Zhang says he came to the project knowing he wanted to create some sort of “archaeological” site, where the past, present and future would come together, as they often have in his previous works. “London is a very cosmopolitan city, like New York, lots of different people from different backgrounds and I wanted to channel that into this new work. I’m interested in showing that although people are different we are also very much the same,” Zhang says.

While he was a pioneer of Chinese abstraction in the 1980s before moving toward conceptual art and performance art in the 1990s, Zhang has always maintained an interest in the figurative, having first been taught traditional Western oil painting.

His figurative works are perhaps less well known—largely because they have not always been exhibited—but portraiture either in oil or in photography has been recurring in his practice over the years. “Sometimes the portraiture is not facial,” he says, noting that for his 1997 mixed media installation Foot Print, he invited people to walk on a large stone island covered with water mixed with ink: “Around the island there was a canvas on the floor and after the people had walked on the stone, they would walk on the canvas leaving a faint footprint. Footprints are very individual, and over three months, there were endless footprints as people left their mark around the space. Although I didn’t draw in a face, the footprints were like a portrait of the people that came.”


Zhang Jian-Jun in the studio during his two-month residency. Photograph © Studio PB.


For Human Traces, Zhang has turned to Chinese ink and charcoal on paper to create a series of soulful portraits of 42 individuals he has met and interviewed while in London for his project. The portraits are now crudely taped onto the wall, some of the papers are torn, others layered on top of one another. “I used several different types of paper, some rice paper I had brought with me from China, but also Japanese paper and some thick French paper I’ve found here. The idea is that the portraits are all linked to each other but this difference in paper also represents our differences,” he explains. “I layered the paper like layers you would find in an archaeological site. The paper is torn to evoke the idea of something unfinished, like a research place.”

The portraits are mixed with studies of classical statues that the artist saw at the Royal Academy, and the installation includes three of the sculptures now placed at the centre of the studio. “The sketches of the sculptures represent the past, while the portraits of the people I talked to in the street represent the present,” explains the artist. Zhang adds that although each of his projects is independent, they are all connected through his ongoing artistic investigation into the notion of time, cultural movement, and the nature of humankind.

Human Traces is connected to Human Chapter,” he says, referring to a work first shown at an arts centre in Los Angeles in 2005 and later exhibited in the Guangdong Museum of Art, Guangzhou. For that project, Zhang had interviewed several people asking them a set of seven questions and then printed their photographs using a special emulsion that caused the images to fade over time. Before the fading process took effect, he would draw over the photograph using graphite. He would then re-photograph his work every few months in order to record the fading process. Eventually only the graphite remains.

For Human Traces, Zhang approached people he met in London and asked them three questions: ‘What was the happiest experience in your life?’, ‘What was the saddest?’ and ‘What do you want to say to people 100 years in the future?’ The artist purposely tried to find people representing a spectrum of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds “to make their stories more significant.” The audio recordings of their answers are now playing, sometimes simultaneously, in the space, helping immerse visitors in the work, while reflecting on their own answers to Zhang’s questions.

“While the first two questions are very personal, the answers to the second question were actually very similar, which shows that beyond our cultural differences we are all the same. Most people said their saddest experience in life was losing a family member. That’s also my saddest experience,” he notes. Zhang points out that most people also had similar concerns about the future, often talking about issues related to ecology. “It’s a reflection of our time. And what’s interesting is that I asked a similar question in 2002, and at the time, people mostly talked about stopping war and stopping killing each other, which was right on the back of 9/11,” he says.


Portraits by Zhang Jian-Jun mixed among classical statues at the Royal Academy, London. Photograph © Alastair Fyfe.


The artist hopes visitors will come to the exhibition and take a metaphorical view from above looking down. “I want them to see the whole picture. The past, the present and the future are linked. It’s like the flowing water, you cannot say there is a past or present or future, it all flows into each other,” he says.

After London, Human Traces will be exhibited in Hong Kong and it will continue to develop. “I see this project as an ongoing one. I got a lot of material in London and I cannot finish what I wanted to do, even if I worked 10 hours a day. There are still portraits I want to finish,” he says. Because he created some of the drawings directly on the walls of the studio, the next installation of Human Traces will necessarily be slightly different. “Ephemerality plays an important role in my work. When a drop of water falls in the river, the drop disappears but the water stays. It’s the same with my work. Whether the work stays there permanently or disappears over time, it’s still part of my work, the memory carries on,” he says.

Asked about what he would like to tell people in 100 years, he quips, “Fix the earth and make it as beautiful as possible before moving to Mars.”



Zhang Jian-Jun Artist in Residence: Human Traces
Residency Period: July – September, 2019
Exhibition: 5 September – 14 September, 2019



About the Artist

Zhang Jian-Jun was born in 1955 in Shanghai. In 1978 he graduated from the Department of Fine Arts at the Shanghai Theatre Academy and subsequently, in 1986, he was appointed Shanghai Art Museum’s first director of the Curatorial and Art Research Department. Three years later, in 1989, Zhang relocated to the United States. Based between New York and Shanghai, Zhang is presently a professor at New York University Shanghai.


Zhang first began delving into abstract painting in the 1980s. Through his artistic endeavors, he seeks to express his personal perspective on humankind and the universe at large through the integrity of language. His paintings unveil a profound understanding of Chinese philosophy and culture.



About K11 Art Foundation x Royal Academy of Arts Artist-in-Residence Programme

The three-year residency programme is a partnership between K11 Art Foundation (KAF) and the Royal Academy of Arts (RA). The programme strives to foster artistic exchange across the two institutions; serving as a platform to highlight the diversity and dynamism of Chinese contemporary art while also presenting RA School graduates an opportunity to take up residency in China at one of the KAF artist villages.




Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop is an established freelance journalist, who has written about art in Asia since 2002 for numerous publications, including The New York Times/International Herald Tribune, Newsweek, South China Morning Post, and Prestige. She was the editor in chief for Europe and Asia at BlouinArtinfo.com between 2012 and 2016.



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