When I first saw Zhang Yongzheng’s improvisations, my immediate point of reference was music. More specifically to “A donkey passes the river”, composed by his longtime friend Zhang Quan and performed by the now defunct Wild Children.
The brush strokes know where they are heading, but they make sure they’re having a good time getting there. There’s playfulness and a sense of relaxation, a freedom in creation – Wu Wei if you like. Where the donkey runs in small circles on his way through the water, Zhang Yongzheng’s brush make sudden turns, inspired by the moment to find a new direction, an extra turn just for the fun of it. The result is inspiring.
It is as though the artist suddenly found a state of mind or a physical space that frees him of any inhibition, mental chains or performance anxiety. Paradoxically I get the sense that he finds this by moving backwards towards his youth, not by striving forward. In these improvisations are the plains of his native Gansu province. There’s a sparsely populated desert, like a landscape where the wind carries tunes, memories, dreams.
Zhang Yongzheng once said that he doesn’t really know what he wants to say with these improvisations. That might, maybe together with some amounts of alcohol*, have been the secret to letting himself loose. The result is a playfulness combined with a sense of humor and, at times, a trace of melancholy.
It is a bit like finding your own personal version of Zhang Guolao’s donkey. It is said that he rode a white donkey backwards. It could cover 1000 li every day. More than that, he could fold it and pack it in his bag when he didn’t ride it. I think Zhang Yongzheng, through his improvisations, has found his white magic donkey.
In a sense, the artist invites us all to travel 1000 li with him. Because this exhibition is jazz, it’s folk music and it’s Chinese contemporary art – all at the same time.
I congratulate Zhang Yongzheng and TCG Nordica on this exhibition. It’s one that we been talking about for years.
*Editor’s note: Zhang Yongzheng often drank alcohol when creating his early paper-based works, but stopped using it in later works.