To Paint in a State of Inaction
Interview with Zhang Yongzheng
Interview location: Zhang Yongzheng’s studio
Time: 4:30 – 5:30, February 18th, 2012
Interviewee: Zhang Yongzheng (below “Z”)
Interviewer: He Libin (below “H”)
Recorders: Sha Yurong, Rao Gang
Text editors: He Libin, Sha Yurong
Translator: R. Orion Martin
H: When did you begin to make these paper-based works?
Z: Concentrated production began in 2003. I was traveling in Yunnan during the SARS epidemic. Because I couldn’t go home, I stayed in Yunnan, bought some rather small pieces of paper, and began production. I mainly used markers and charcoal pencils.
H: How was Yunnan at that time?
Z: Because of the SARS epidemic, I couldn’t return home and was renting an apartment. It was the rainy season and I had nothing to do but to stay inside and paint. At that time the conditions were good, I painted quite a lot. In July when I went back to Beijing the conditions weren’t right to paint.
H: Why weren’t the conditions right?
Z: After I arrived in Beijing, I just couldn’t paint improvisations. I was conscious that this was related to the geographical location, just like they say some people are magnetically drawn to a region. Perhaps Yunnan is more suited to me, and gives me more inspiration. So I settled in Yunnan in 2004.
H: Did you make improvised works when you were living in Beijing before 2004?
Z: I did, but very few. Most of them were on canvas, very few were on paper. After coming to Yunnan, all of my paper works were improvised, without any reference. The works from 2004 were made when I was having a cup of tea, and I would randomly start working with paper and pen.
H: At that time were you looking for work?
Z: No. I had just arrived and wasn’t very familiar with Kunming. I rode my bike all over the city to familiarize myself with the environment. At the end of 2004, symbols of my artistic language appeared in my random (suxing) paper-based works. I discovered that these lines are very interesting and employed them in my canvas-based works.
H: The works on canvas are colored. They don’t seem very much like your paper-based works.
Z: The works on canvas are also very random when first begun, but in later stages many new elements are added.
H: The two of them have a very different feeling. One is on paper, very improvisational, recorded very quickly, and the other is the opposite. The dimensions are enlarged, the elements are increased, and the time needed to complete it is also quite long.
Z: The canvas works are based on the grandeur of the image. The visual effect must be richer than the paper-based works. But the paper works are more random. They don’t require thinking about as many things, they’re more at ease. The canvas works require that I consider many elements.
H: I’ve been looking at your works for many years, and I’ve discovered that while you work on the paper-based and canvas-based works at the same time, they have two completely opposite feelings. The paper based works are quite random, improvisational, and quickly created. When I look upon them, I feel very excited, and have the urge to paint. The canvas-based works are very rational and the sense of design is very strong. Every aspect, including the color selection, all reflects a process of careful deliberation.
Z: The canvas-based works only retain the random lines. There are rational components during the creation process because I know what kind of thing I want to make. Before I begin to paint, the design is already complete. When I first begin to work on the canvas the lines are very random and unrestrained. But at the end of the process, some of these original things slowly become weaker and I incorporate other elements, for example themes related to traditional Daoism. The paper works contain some holdovers from the original state that are impossible to retain in the canvas-based works.
H: I believe this is a difference in the direction of the style. They are actually two types of work, two directions in the condition of the artist. And while they remain distinct, they are also complementary to one another. The improvisational feeling of the paper works, arising from the freedom expressed in the lines, resembles Pollock’s early works, before his style of bright splashes was established. Like his work, the image, lines, and symbols all have the flavor of aboriginal art. In terms of temperament, your work is very close to his. I wonder if early Abstract Expressionist work wasn’t all like this, a condition. Improvised expression can bring out some familiar areas or cultural elements, very primary and ancient. The calmness of the canvas, however, more closely resembles Mondrian’s mature works. The squares and colors are more metaphysical. Although your canvas works include symbols and content pulled from the Book of Change and Daoism, still they remain very metaphysical. In terms of paper works’ images, improvised lines of writing are only one part. These lines are in service of the larger work’s composition, and are already integrated into the visual calm of the center.
Z: In the end, the improvised writing becomes a part of the image. It’s different than the original work. I quite like lines. This is directly related to my contact with calligraphy as a child. I’m quite sensitive to lines. The way I use them is more powerful than the way I use other methods. Using lines, I can express myself in a comparatively direct way. These past years I am always searching for questions in the lines. Western artists also use lines, but there’s a certain discrepancy between the lines used in the East and the West. The tools are also different. I still tend to use traditional Chinese methods, for Chinese lines are more aesthetically appealing. Whether in early Chinese rock carving, pottery, Dunhuang murals or folk art, lines are the entry point for all the aesthetic of all Chinese traditional arts. I am studying lines. To arrive at a process – this is the core of my continuing explorations.
H: I still believe there is a difference. Ancient people focused on brush and ink. Besides the application of line in calligraphy, line never achieved a particularly high status, and it was never independent. In Chinese painting, lines weren’t amplified and given their own language until the 20th century when Western influence became prominent. You regard traditional art very highly, but where you differ from ancient people is that you live today and are influenced by the West, particularly by Modernism. So when you speak about line, I think you’re coming at it from a different angle than ancient people.
Z: That I use line is a matter of instinct. Starting in 1997, I drew a few paper-based works. Of course at that time they weren’t very developed, but they were focused on line.
H: This must be closely related to your calligraphy training as a child.
Z: To a certain extent, yes.
H: What were the particulars of your study at that time?
Z: It must have been part of my vacation homework.
H: Your father made you practice characters?
Z: Yes, my father required that I practice.
H: At that time did you ever consider being a calligrapher?
Z: No, I liked drawing more.
H: And your father did not ask you to?
Z: He didn’t ask. At that time I would draw pictures and write characters with my brother. Later we naturally separated; he practiced characters and I drew pictures.
H: This is quite interesting because I think the lines are a rather prominent element in your work. They are different than those of a calligrapher, an attempt to distance yourself from the influence of calligraphic form. And still there’s something quite expressive about them, like a wild self-taught (yeluzi) method.
Z: It is in fact a wild self-taught method. I’ve received relatively little academic influence. In 2005 when my paper-based works began to gradually mature, I discovered that many of my works were created unconsciously. Using line is also automatic. I don’t intentionally draw something; they’re generally all done in a state of unconsciousness.
H: It’s quite tied to your instincts.
Z: Yes. It must be the truest aspect, but at that time I wasn’t thinking about it because I did not realize it until after they were painted. Only later when I opened them up to look again and review my work, did I begin to reflect on my painting method. Afterwards when I picked up the work again, I tried my utmost to maintain that state.
H: What kind of state was that?
Z: An overjoyed state. A feeling of forgetting myself and feeling no limits to space and time. Back then, in ‘05, my paper and tools were spread throughout my living room, so whenever I felt the conditions were right I could get to it.
H: Your works from 2005 are a significant leap in comparison to your works from 2003 and 2004. It’s a big step forward in the force and infectiousness of your works. The following works, although still quite free, are probing and the dimensions are not large.
Z: The dimensions of the early works were small due to limited materials.
H: In 2005 you began to use brushes?
Z: That’s right, I began using ink and brush. I was still using other tools.
H: Your brother also practiced calligraphy since childhood. If he used identical instruments and materials, I imagine the works he produced would have a very different feeling.
Z: Definitely. Although one can achieve quite a bit with a Chinese brush, there remain certain limitations. I don’t look at materials in terms of their traditional use. I use various materials and instruments because they yield different results. It’s a bit more free. If I can achieve the effect I want, that’s enough.
H: It’s clear from looking at your paintings that there is a relationship with tradition. “Tradition” generally has two important sides. The first is the traditions of Chinese culture and the second is the traditions of the West. In your works, the experimental aesthetic of your method and construction is distanced from both of these traditions. If an artist follows the traditional route of Chinese art, they begin with the most basic line, setting the brush against the page and then lifting it, each with a specific, standardized style. Your style is very wild and it’s difficult to make out influence from Western classical art or realist painting. This is because you received relatively little art education, and it’s one of your strengths.
Z: When I was seven or eight years old I began to practice characters, and at the same time I was painting. At school I would study sketching and at home I would practice ink painting and writing characters. I even studied carving seals (zhuanke) out of stone. But now I do my best to avoid Western and Eastern influence, for I want to express the truest aspects of myself.
H: I think it’s very important that your entry point is your innermost perceptions and condition. It suits your mode of work, and this is extremely important.
Z: Since 2003 I have drawn many paper-based works. Later I felt that while I am capable of improvisation, this is something that is basically absent from the art education system. I also discovered that it’s not something I can do every day. It requires one be in a specific condition and have a personal passion. If, at that time, your condition is improvisational and random, the effect will be good. But if you’re not in that condition you just won’t be able to paint. So I think this does not belong to traditional artistic creation. It’s something else, perhaps resembling improvisational music.
H: It does seem similar, but still it’s different. Improvisational music relies on accumulated technique and feeling to achieve a normal state, but your paper-based works remain tied to inspiration. It simply wouldn’t do to paint them every day.
Z: When I had just begun, I struggled to do them clearly. I believe that when the condition is right I am bestowed with a kind of energy, and then I release that energy.
H: You use this energy, your most instinctual, most basic means, to arouse your innermost being. Therefore, I think your works can only be made during a certain time. It’s not a logical painting that can be worked on every day. This kind of work can only be expressed for a short time every year. Your inner path must be accumulated in stages before it can be released all at once. And when it is released, it needs to be accumulated again.
Z: That’s right. This collection of work can be separated into three periods starting in 2005, 2008, and 2010 respectively. Each period was two or three months of time. Each occurred just after I had finished a solo exhibition of canvas-based works and began to work on paper. One part of this could be that when I finished an exhibition of canvas-based works, I needed to stop and consider new creations. Another part of it is that I was more relaxed and could release some of what had been accumulated. For the paper works, I prepare my materials and then work for two or three months without stopping. When I’m out of accumulated material, I basically just stop. But before I can get to the next stage and paint again, there needs to be a long break.
H: This creation process seems to be a regular pattern.
Z: That’s right. I believe the meaning of the paper works is that I do not consciously want to express something, nor do I want to revisit past works. I think it’s really about returning to my original state. It’s actually a kind of diary or a reminiscence of a certain time. It’s difficult to say exactly what is being painted or expressed. My improvised works exist in a different system. They’re not here to expound on anything, not at all. It’s related to my personal situation, because these are basically not connected to my thinking or brain.
H: And what do you think they’re related to?
Z: I think they’re connected to my unconscious, my soul. When I paint these, I feel I am an tool, not that I use tools. I am pulled by a power, so I don’t need to think much. Sometimes I don’t think at all.
H: I think it’s quite interesting that you often speak of your paper works as being drawn unconsciously. I read that Pollock said that when he painted, he didn’t know what he was doing. He felt he was being moved by a greater force. When he was painting in an unconscious state, he didn’t know when he would finish. This is very similar to your works. This kind of method and condition indeed exist in a different kind of system. Do you think that this method and your canvas-based paintings are related?
Z: The canvas works also involve improvisation. Many elements and insights are drawn from the paper. But the condition is completely different. I can only say that my creative energy has two forms. On canvas I can release the reason based part, and the other part, the truest part, the freshest part, the part closest to me, can only be released on paper. My condition when making the paper works is close to what Buddhists would call “the self” (benwo).
H: Actually you could say that the paper based works are the source for your entire body of work.
Z: Yes, you could say it like that. The paper is a source. I’m not willing to repeat things. On paper, I’m searching for something fresh. Although it’s improvised, I’m still able to search for new elements and possibilities during the process.
H: This condition is very good. Some artists who work with paper discover new possibilities during the process of creation. They repeatedly work on this possibility in order to go deeper into it. But you are concerned with the unknown things it can bring out.
Z: I still enjoy the process of working on paper. The works on canvas are comparatively solemn. It’s a different condition to face a canvas than to face a piece of paper. Facing a canvas makes on feel more solemn, more pressured, because of the problem of materials. I believe paper can have more affinity. It’s easier to control during the painting process. While I’m working, I find it easy to become one with the paper. The reason I am always working on paper is because I have this energy and ability to improvise. The people who have this kind of ability are rare.
H: In 2010 and 2011 you have included some new materials in your paper-based process. You’re using oil paints?
Z: I use oil paints among others. The reason I use different materials is because I am searching for new possibilities. Furthermore, the effects of some materials are unique. For example, the special characteristics of oil paints are different from those of ink, and they can create different effects. I’m interested in this aspect of the work and seek to discover new materials and methods. My ultimate goal is to create fresh things.
H: And you want to take these new effects and translate them into your canvas works?
Z: I don’t think about it that much. It’s just that the materials are different. But my experiments on paper have in fact contributed to my creative work on canvas. In some canvas works I blend in some elements from the paper works.
H: Many friends recommended that for this solo exhibition, you display canvas and paper works next to each other. But you decided to hang only paper-based works. What was the thinking behind that?
Z: The paper works and the canvas works are two different systems. You could say they represent a different aspect of me, and I plan to bring out this aspect for everyone to see. I think that displaying the canvas and paper works in a single exhibition hall would definitely produce a conflict because they are two extremes. My canvas-based works are brightly colored, with many elements. They use points, lines, and surfaces in a complex and solemn way. The paper works are mostly black and white. They are often made from ink and the majority of the works are rather simple. So for this exhibition I thought I want it to be rather pure, and decided to display only paper works.
H: In this exhibition, what do you expect to give to the audience?
Z: I just want to display my works, and let people share in something that can’t be found in the art education system.
H: What do you hope to transmit with the title “Wuwei?”
Z: “Wuwei” is the kind of realm I’m seeking. “Wuwei” first appeared in pre-Qin dynasty Daoist thinking, particularly in Laozi’s Daodeqing. Later, Daoists spoke of “Wuwei” from all kinds of angles. It’s also an ideal in traditional Chinese thought. Another reason is that “Wuwei” is the best way to describe my condition when working. It’s a kind of unconsciousness without a goal. To act in a state of inaction is to return to the purest state of painting.