The Secret and the Sublime

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Zhang Xiaogang has become one of China’s biggest selling artists but despite huge acclaim and equally sizeable sales figures he remains humble and unaffected as Glass discovers
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” said Zhang Xiaogang when asked how he would describe the China he grew up in to a child of today. “I would show him or her a photo of my childhood.”
Xiaogang was born in 1958, the same year that Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” started – the initiative that sought to move the Chinese economy from a more agrarian model to an industrialised one, with dire consequences. Xiaogang came of age at the peak of the Cultural Revolution. During this period, to be in possession of photos depicting the past was considered a crime, and as such ‘new’ portraits were encouraged. Photographs of Chinese citizens from the time around the Cultural Revolution reveal a great deal about the Zeitgeist.

While the Western world obsessed over Kodak moments and candid photography, the rigidity of photographs from the Mao era reflects a micromanaged culture. Memories from pre-Communist China may have been scorned, but the extremely ‘produced’ photos of the Mao era betray a desire for that period to be remembered with a synthetic halo, affirming its ‘goodness’.

Painters who paint ‘photo-realistically’ are generally not trying to create a painting which resembles a photograph, but rather are striving to achieve the accuracy and clarity that is guaranteed by celluloid. Xiaogang, on the other hand, strove to create paintings which are reminiscent of the photographs of the Chinese culture that proliferated during Mao’s era. His acclaimed Bloodlines series is typified by seemingly identical ‘families’ sitting for portraits, each unnervingly similar and blank-faced but with crucial, minute differences intimating at the underlying individual.

Xiaogang toys with the concept of both uniformity and individuality. The flatness of expression and hue, and the superficial alikeness that characterises these paintings is interrupted by idiosyncratic differences. The compositions themselves exhibit subjects with otherwise identical features yet one of the family members may have a crossed eye or a mole. The variations are also expressed by his various series which differ incrementally from painting to painting. Throughout his bodies of work, large patches of primary coloured areas make segments of the paintings appear weathered or otherwise damaged, distressed in the wear-and-tear sense: a literal and figuratively appropriate evaluation of both the photographs and the subjects in them. These anomalous segments hint at the imperfections that lay behind the seemingly benign photographs that Xiaogang drew his inspiration from.

Xiaogang insists, though, that he is commenting more on the photography than the intense political and social themes that dominated the individuals featured in the photos he draws inspiration from. While it is seemingly impossible for Western audiences to experience Xiaogang’s work without seeing it as a commentary on the Mao regime, this fascination is something audiences seem to transpose as a deliberate sentiment; that this is the overarching ‘meaning’ of the work. He is quick to dispel this myth. “There seems to be a general misunderstanding from the West about my artworks. My works are not intended to display the relationship between people and the State. Different geographical, cultural and historical backgrounds bring about diversified history and cultural concepts. Even in an increasingly globalised world, understanding each other requires a long process.”

All artists have their own visual language, but few achieve the fluency that Xiaogang has. Using a crepuscular palette to mimic the muted and droning colours seen in photos of the 1950–1960s era, Xiaogang’s haunting take on traditional family portraiture in the Bloodlines series is evocative to both Eastern and Western audiences. While he may be recreating a style that is distinctly traditionally Chinese, the works resonate with audiences internationally because all societies can identify with the notion of collectivism on some level. Regardless of the concept being less overt in Western history, it is universally familiar nonetheless.

Xiaogang cites his first artistic expressions as the comic series he would adorn his notebooks with. “This is where it all started,” he explains. He was inspired by and, according to him, most influenced by Theodore Gericault, El Greco and René Magritte; but he also pinpoints more traditional Eastern works as informing his distinct style, for example Lin Liang (1424–1500), who was an Imperial painter during the Ming Dynasty. “At the age of 17, I began to follow the renowned Yunnan watercolor artist Lin Ling to study sketches and watercolor paintings, and I also started to access and read books about art. That was my first exposure to art and art education in real sense,” states Xiaogang.

While his work may be propelled by the concept of collectivism, Xiaogang very readily asserts his individuality as an artist. He is often categorised as a ‘cynical Realist’, a collective term for the artists that emerged from the disillusionment of ’90s China, artists whose work is often underlined with irony. But personally he prefers not to subscribe to such taxonomical evaluations. “Various so-called “isms” and styles are more definitions by art historians for a particular period of time during art development. As for artists themselves, those definitions are rarely considered during the creation of their art works – and their art works are more of an expression of their own feelings and emotions. At least they are for mine.” Xiaogang is deeply concerned with psychological realms and, following Bloodlines, created another definitive series called Amnesia and Remembrance, dealing more with the photographs of the mind: memories as recorded in the albums of our recollections.

When asked about the current Chinese industrial spurt and whether it is informing his art presently, he states; “Industrialisation rapidly changes our lives. However, artists should follow their own way of thinking when they are creating their works of art. Relatively speaking, artists are very individual. Therefore, at the moment I’m still not so sure about how this industrialisation in China will influence my work.”

 A picture is certainly worth a thousand words, and in the case of Xiaogang, they are often worth millions of dollars too. Xiaogang is credited with leading the vanguard of contemporary Chinese artists currently dominating the international market, and with commanding record breaking sums at auction. Prior to his multimillion dollar sale of Bloodlines in 2006, only traditional Chinese art had commanded such formidable amounts at auction.

As the world turns its attention to China’s new generation of artists, what is his advice to young artists today? “Work hard and never give up”. This simple motto is the essence of the painter’s intensely psychologically complex and symbolically sophisticated works; almost a complete inversion of the visually sparse yet production-heavy photographs that inspire much of his work.
Xiaogang currently teaches art at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, the school from which he graduated.

by Yasmin Bilbeisi

From the Glass archive – issue four

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