Zhang Yongzheng VS Luo Fei
Zhang Yongzheng: Professional Artist.
Luo Fei: Director and Curator of TCG Nordica Gallery in Kunming, Artist, and art blogger.
Time: the afternoon of 24th, December, 2007
Place: The Studio of Zhang Yongzheng on the Road of Longquan in Kunming
Record Script: Xia Yun
[Ⅰ]Self-Consciousness of Life: From Lanzhou to Beijing and then to Yunnan
Luo: After seeing your works of recently years, I found some interesting factors in your works, for example calligraphy, Chinese culture, abstract drawing and so on. Today, I’d like to ask you about these things. First, please introduce your educational background in the field of art briefly.
Zhang: I went to school at the age of 6. I painted better than others at the very beginning of the art course. It was still so when I started to learn calligraphy. Maybe I was born with the talent of art, or it was passed down by my father. My father liked drawing and calligraphy when he was young. At home, my father asked me and my elder brother to copy the copy-book and practice writing Kai characters with brush. The art education in the school didn’t affect me much. I often painted some strange things at home and copied many sketches of Xu Beihong which included nudes. My families supported me in drawing, and the book of Xu Beihong’s sketches was bought by my father. In 1980s, drawing nudes was an open-minded thing, especially at my hometown which is a remote place. At that time I also painted Chinese traditional painting by myself on the Xuan paper when writing calligraphy. A friend of mine had a book of Xu Beihong’s Chinese traditional paintings. I borrowed the book from him to copy it. Thus, I learned painting by myself with a book of Xu Beihong’s sketches and a book of Xu Beihong’s Chinese traditional paintings. I didn’t know any other painters at that time.
Luo: Did you think of getting into artistic academy at that time?
Zhang: I dreamed to be a painter when I was very young. I had confidence in myself. No matter what I painted, I painted it very vividly.
Luo: Which school did you get into at last?
Zhang: I went to the Costume School of Gansu Province which is a technical secondary school. There were two artistic majors in the school. One was costume design, and another was interior design. Because painting was my hobby, which school to study in was not important to me.
Luo: What was your major?
Zhang: Costume design. At that time, I was only 15 years old and left home for the school. Later, my father said it was not easy to find a job after graduating from the technical secondary school, and I’d better go on to study in a junior college. So after reading for one year in the technical secondary school I went to the Northwest College for Nationalities (today’s Northwest University for Nationalities) to continue my study at my own expenses. I studied the college courses of “industrial arts” and learned everything from plane design, advertisement, environmental art, calligraphy, Chinese traditional art and so on. I attended classes off the campus instead of on the campus. So actually I was not educated systematically. I studied there for 2 years painting all the time. I graduated at the age of 18. Then, I started to work. At first, I paint advertisements. At that time, I intended to paint artistic paintings after graduation, but the conditions didn’t allow me to do so. Because I couldn’t earn money by artistic painting, I had to stop for a while. The painting at that time was actually creation. After the junior middle school I seldom copied others’ paintings. I didn’t do it consciously. I just want to paint freely. I worked in Lanzhou for 2 years, and didn’t want to stay there any longer. At that time I dreamed of going to the Central Academy of Arts which was a holy place for painters in the remote mountain areas. Then, I came to Beijing at the age of 20.
Luo: In which year?
Zhang: I came to Beijing in 1998. After coming to Beijing, I found the food and the boarding were expensive. I first came to Beijing and saw high buildings everywhere. The colliding to a young man from a remote mountain area was great in every aspect. After staying in Beijing for several days, I felt uncomfortable and was under great pressure, and then I went to Tianjin. After half a year’s adaptation, I came back to Beijing again. I was alone at that time. I worked for 2 or 3 years, and painted some black and white paintings now and then, because in my heart, I love painting most. Though I did some design sometimes, that was only for living. I determined to take up my painting brush after about 2 or 3 years. I was influenced by some musicians (they were engaged in folk songs and underground music) in “Hejiu” bar. I often went to drink in that bar and was influenced by them. I was leading a quiet and well-to-do life. But when I saw their persistent pursuit for music, I was awakened: though they were leading a poor life, they were still doing what they love. The question of “What did I come to Beijing for?” that I asked myself several years before now awaked me suddenly. From then on, I had a new view point of my life. I had a completely new idea about life when I was 24 years old. I left Beijing in 2004. Before leaving I had to choose a place to go to.
Luo: Why did you leave Beijing at that time? What did you plan to do in Beijing? Why did you choose to leave after suddenly realized what you should do for your dream?
Zhang: I wanted to find a quiet and stable life and so I can paint. I found everyone was in a hurry in Beijing, so did I, hustling into the tube or bus to go to work, paying the rent after getting the salary every month. In that condition, once I stopped working and devoted myself into painting, I couldn’t keep a living. I stayed in Beijing for more than 5 years (I also stayed in Lanzou for more than 5 years), and felt my relation with Beijing had ended. The experiences that I needed I have experienced, so I wanted to change a place. At that time I was not clear where to go until the SARS period in 2003. I heard from friends that Yunnan was an interesting place, so I went to there. But later, I found I couldn’t go back because of the SARS. Then, I stayed in Yunnan for 2 months. That was the raining season of Kunming. In these 2 months, I painted a lot of small paintings.
Luo: You stayed in Kunming all the while in those 2 months?
Zhang: I went to Lijiang for a while at the beginning, and then came back to Kunming and rent an apartment to paint. I loved that feeling. My paintings at that time were mainly improvisational. What was in my heart was evoked. In Yunnan, I deeply realized a living state, just like the life of Naxi people in Lijiang: half a day’s work and half a day’s idleness; having some drink, singing and dancing in the evening… I think that was the most primitive and best life of men. I wanted to live that kind of living. After two months, I painted a lot of paintings. After the SARS, I went back to Beijing. In Beijing, I tried to paint but failed. But when I was in Yunnan, I can paint whenever I want. Then I started to think about the relationship between men (Luo: existing state), area, and the environment. The atmosphere in Yunnan is quite different from that in Beijing. In Yunnan, there is blue sky, white clouds and many colorful things; but in Beijing, everything is grey. The feeling given by Beijing is grey.
Luo: I found art to you is the self-consciousness of life, is the need of understanding life itself. You need it and cannot live without it.
Zhang: Yes. To me, painting is indispensable in my life. If I don’t paint, my life is not complete. That is an instinctive need.
Luo: What are you painting in these days?
Zhang: Some improvisational small paintings. Most of them are black and white which I never give up.
Luo: Do you paint with Chinese writing brush?
Zhang: Not necessarily. Sometimes I paint with Chinese writing brush, sometimes with pen, and I used carbolic pen for a while, because I drew mainly lines in that period.
Luo: Are they abstract?
Zhang: Not completely abstract. They are distorted men, environment and so on. Some things may not exist.
Luo: Do you just paint improvisatorially according to your imagination without anything to refer to?
Zhang: Yes, I just paint according to my imagination and impression.
Luo: Then you have been staying here painting since you came to Kunming in 2004.
Zhang: Yes. After I came to Yunnan from Beijing, I fell in love with this place, the sunshine and the environment here. I changed my living style after leaving Beijing, a slower life without much expense, and I had time to paint. I came to Yunnan to settle down and spend my rest life here. I came to Yunnan not because of the reasons as others thought, such as that many famous artists are from Yunnan. At that time I didn’t know about this, and didn’t know about contemporary art. Now I know something about it, but not at that time.
Luo: How did you make a living then?
Zhang: With the money earned in Beijing.
Luo: Were you married then?
Zhang: Yes, I was. What I thought of was to live a stable life.
Luo: Didn’t you think of looking for a job at that time? Did you mainly think about your creation?
Zhang: I didn’t think of looking for a job at that time. I just planed to think of some ideas when problem occurred in life. Creation is one aspect of life. I mainly want to be relaxed and calm down. I had been busy since I was very young. From school to work, I had been struggling for life. After coming to Yunnan, I found, ah, one could be so idle. One could live in this way! Actually many things come from quietness. We should think about life itself first, because art is a way of life. I have painting time in my life, and painting is part of my life. That is enough.
[Ⅱ] The Significance of Writing “Process”
Luo: After arriving Kunming, you started creating the series of “Process”. Is 2004 the first year?
Zhang: The first year is 2005. Actually I started from the end of 2004. I didn’t create them on purpose. They were the outcome of long-time improvisatory painting, and what were oppressed when in Lanzhou and Beijing burst out in Yunnan. Things of this language came from my sketches and improvisations at usual time. The language was abstracted from the sketches I painted at usual time.
Luo: From the “Process No.1” of 2005, there started to be two obvious factors in the form: One is the sense of the design. The sketched design is very distinctive if one doesn’t see your original work. Another factor is the writing, the writing of those symbols of much sense of characters. The two factors exist until today. We can say they are you language and they are more and more mature. I have a question. As you mentioned, you practice and copy calligraphy when you were very young. Then, whose calligraphy did you mainly copy?
Zhang: At that time I copied any calligraphy that I could lay my hands on, and didn’t focus on any specific calligraphers. Calligraphy is an aspect. Like the series of “Process”, when “Process No.1” was created, I was unconscious. In so many years I was good at and like using lines, and I felt it interesting to abstract things like characters from my sketches. I found they were close to and suited me well. I wanted to get what I wanted and what I wanted to create from these things.
Luo: In your works, some concepts in cultural system occur repeatedly. What make you think about these?
Zhang: I started to paint such kind of things from “Process No.1”, for example the works of “Spring”, “Summer”, “Autumn” , “Winter” and “Solar Terms”. After coming to Yunnan, I sensed the relationship between me and the climate and area, so I started to think about these things.
Luo: We can see that the Titles of works in “Process No.1” have something to do with Yunnan, for example, works like “Altitude Sickness” and “Living in Peace and Contentment”.
Zhang: Yes. They are in the order of time.
Luo: Though the theme of your creation was named as “Process”, it has something to do with your own individual experience.
Zhang: Yes. After painting for a period of time, I gradually understand the significance of “process” and gave it that name. The word “process” summarized my understanding of life. After I came to Yunnan, my life changed. I led a life more like a normal man and I started to think from “Origin” to “Altitude Sickness”, “Living in Peace and Contentment” ,“Working in Peace and Contentment ”…
Luo: Your title is also interesting. As far as “process” concerns, it’s an abstract concept, and even a philosophical word. But the titles of your individual works in the series of “process” are about concrete daily life and daily experience of life.
Zhang: Yes. The titles of my works on one hand can give others a clue; on the other hand, they are the records of each painting and each period of my life.
Luo: Let’s come back to the picture itself and talk about the question of calligraphy. You had the habit of practicing calligraphy when you were young, and you have the experience of improvisation. In your work, the prominent factor is line. You use line to express your emotion and experience. Improvisation is a main creating method of you. Then, the symbols which are like calligraphy in your works were created promptly or after consideration?
Zhang: I wrote them directly without any interruption. But I didn’t do that everyday, only do it when I was in a good state. Improvisation depends on your state. In my improvisational sketches, the use of lines was also unconscious and improvisational. I couldn’t do it every day. Only when I adjusted my state, could I finish a work without any letup.
Luo: That is to say, you know about your own state after so many years’ improvisational creation.
Zhang: Yes. I can adjust my state, because I know when I’m in a good state. A good state means having an impulse to create. Once I have the impulse I will take up a pen and do my sketches. If I don’t, then the impulse will disappear.
Luo: When you are improvising something, do you need music or other things like wine or tea or anything else to produce a certain atmosphere?
Zhang: Music is common, and sometimes I need some wine. But I seldom drink when I create huge works. Creating small pieces is casual and relaxing. I can paint at any time with the tools on the floor of my home. The habit affects my painting today.
Luo: The content you wrote in your work is like characters, especially Dongba characters in Yunnan. You filled the blank spaces with colors which looks like Dongba designs at the fist sight. How did you think of these symbols at first? How did the process come into being? Does it also have something to do with Yunnan?
Zhang: Actually it has no direct relationship with Yunnan. Its occurrence is a natural thing. I didn’t create these lines after rational thinking. They are only the outcome of accumulation and one day they came out suddenly.
Luo: Your writing in usual time and the unconscious improvisation gradually formed the lines in your paintings. They grew out naturally.
Zhang: Yes, it is a natural thing. The seed had been buried down long time before, and in 2005, it shot.
Luo: Just now I mentioned that you filled the spaces between lines with colorful patches. If you write without any letup, and the writing gives people strong visual pleasure of improvisation, the colorful patches make people feel they are like designs, and they diminished the improvisational sense of the writing. How do you think about this point?
Zhang: I understand line as a concept of time, and the patches firstly make the picture seem rich and full; and secondly, they symbolize different points of life in the process of time; thirdly, the inspiration came from the folk, such as Majiayao culture of several thousand years before in which there are lines and fillers, that is to say, there are planes, lines and points. I wanted to foretell the time that men spent everyday, the points in life, the changes of men’s mood and the changes of environment.
Luo: Your improvisational writing looks like calligraphy, but not calligraphy. It is just a way of writing, right?
Zhang: Yes. It is not calligraphy. I used the concept of “Qi” in calligraphy. The most important thing in calligraphy is “Qi”. “Qi” was frequently mentioned in Chinese traditional culture, so I wanted to melt “Qi” in calligraphy into my writing. Such kind of writing has some similarity with calligraphy, and it is also has some similarity with music in its continuance and rhythm. I don’t want to paint something seen in an instance.
Luo: Do you write promptly or slowly?
Zhang: It depends on the mood, just like the rhythm of music.
Luo: Is there a question of success or failure in this kind of improvisational writing?
Zhang: It doesn’t exist in sketches. Though there are some rational thoughts in creating huge works including the control of intervals and the size of brushes, it is still completely free.
Luo: Just let it be naturally?
Zhang: Yes. That is quiet different from calligraphy on this point.
[Ⅲ]Root-seeking in Chinese Traditional Culture
Luo: In the huge works, you think there are rational thoughts and the theme is something within the Chinese cultural system. In other words, they were created under limited conditions.
Zhang: What I express is a carrier which carries theories in “The Classic of Creativity” and Chinese traditional custom. The carrier is like a boat which can take me to the other side of the river. Some people said that I was painting something in “ the Book of Change”, but I can’t paint these things forever. My purpose is not to paint about the traditional culture. I just want to be in the boat and cross the river.
Luo: Get to where by boat?
Zhang: To somewhere that I don’t know. That is just a track of life and art. I know where to go, and the destination is not important.
Luo: Do you know the direction?
Zhang: I know the direction. Now the reason controls the carrier. The difference between small painting and huge painting is that I needn’t think about things in the small paintings which have no direction at all. I get some thinking space after drawing small painting. After finished small painting, I couldn’t say clearly what I felt like when drawing small painting.
Luo: You mentioned another aspect of your paintings: Chinese traditional culture, which is also an important aspect of your paintings. Except your Chinese traditional methods which seem to have something to do with calligraphy and “Qi”, the background of your paintings seem to have relationship with a certain design or image, specifically, the Circle and “Kua”, which are obviously the original symbols of oriental philosophy. How do you think of these symbols? Did you directly use them in your paintings or recreate them?
Zhang: I have a reason to start to care about Chinese traditional culture. I mentioned that many works in “Process No.1” were created unconsciously. The language occurred and it needed some time to practice. After practicing, I should use it to speak. After I finished “Process No.1” and started to create “Process No.2”, I started to care about Chinese traditional culture. And then I realized that what was naturally revealed in “Process No.1” had something to do with life and Chinese traditional culture. And then naturally I started to read about Laozi, Zhuangzi, The Classic of Creativity and the almanac, and care about the spirit of ancient Chinese. Before coming to Yunnan, I mainly read about the west, and was affected by them, for example, Nietzsche, Hegel, Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso and so on. But after I came to Yunnan, I experienced a spiritual bath, and threw away something inside my mind, only left something like calligraphy and characters. I wanted to make my mind and body cleaner, and reflect my understanding of life and art after so many years’ experience. There is a clue from “Process No.1”, “Process No.2”, “Process No.3” to “Process No.4”. In “Process No.1” I painted the solar terms, the four seasons and the five primary elements respectively in paintings. For the later series, “Process No.1” is like a catalog. The following series are about each different element and theme.
Luo: Was there an opportunity or drive to make you choose the Metaphysics instead of the Confucianism of Chinese traditional culture? Why did you choose this aspect of Chinese traditional culture?
Zhang: One reason was that I wanted to find out where I came from; another reason was that I wanted to find out the root of the whole Chinese culture. Chinese culture is very rich, but what is its root? For me, I found its root immediately when I found the culture of northwest Han nationality. It is the culture of the ancient times of Fuxi, and it got into the Book of Change, Laozi and Zhuangzi.
Luo: You are looking for an identification of nationality in the contemporary global background through the tracing back. You are tracing back to your origin, that is, which nationality and cultural system do you belong to. In your own origin, you find the primary origin of human Beijing and the world. Can I understand in that way?
Zhang: I didn’t think that much at the beginning. I just wanted to find myself and my root. The range became smaller and smaller until it was narrowed down to my hometown. Speaking of my hometown, it witnessed the painted pottery of Majiayao culture more than 5000 years before which was the height of the developing history of painted pottery culture. I have special feeling about the abstract lines of the painted pottery. Because I can feel something about my ancestors, and I started to think: Don’t I have some relationship with those who made the painted potteries? I started to think about myself. I was suspecting whether they are my ancestors or not. I didn’t think of I should be different from then in the process of globalization. I just tried to find my own origin, and start my life and my art from that point. That’s it.
Luo: So the abstract symbols, especially those writing in your painting have some connection with Majiayao culture in form, right?
Zhang: The connection is indirect. I liked such kind of things before and often see them to sense the spiritual world of the ancient people. But I didn’t take it directly and use them in my painting. There was a transformation. Man is a transferring object of energy. I absorbed much nutrition, and I expressed them in a simple way.
Luo: I got not only content but also form from Chinese traditional culture, for example, The Classic of Creativity. The most specific symbol is “Kua” which is very symbolic and is known by most Chinese. In your paintings, do all the designs of the background have their related metaphysical symbols?
Zhang: Only “Process No.2” used the symbols of “the Eight Diagrams”. The other works were created according to my own feeling.
[Ⅳ]Chinese Experience and Western Modern Abstract art
Luo: You mentioned that there was abstract art in Chinese tradition, especially that there were abstract characteristics on the northwest Majiayao painted potteries. But the concept of abstract came from western theories, and is the outcome of western modernism. The western abstract art theories represented by Clement Greenberg deemed that abstract art is a form of art which is beyond the concrete image. It is artistic evolutionism and is the earliest understanding of the world of Plato. That is to say, art is used to express “idea”. Abstract art can exceed the concrete painting of three dimensions and get closer to “idea”. On one hand, it is modernism; on the other hand it is individual. That is to say, when an artist is doing abstract art, there is a process called “coding”. Only he himself knows what he is drawing, and others cannot understand. It’s not concrete image. No matter in realism or superrealism, people can connect the images in the paintings with the images or scenes in reality. You cannot connect the abstract art with the reality. People cannot understand the paintings through the images. The abstract artists paint with their ideas. So in the process of decoding, people need to decode with ideas. That is the western theories of abstract art. But in China, as you mentioned, there were such kind of things long before in our tradition, for example, there are abstract and concrete designs on the painted potteries of Yangshao and Majiayao cultures. But at the same time, the abstract designs of painted potteries are not individual. They were not created by a certain individual, or cannot be understand by others and need explanation. They were created by a group. As we know, they symbolize a religious rite, daily life or something. They were the outcome of group creation, and c
ould be decoded by any of them instead of a certain individual. But the abstract art is individual. We came across this question when decoding your works. We can see there are differences between western theories of modernistic abstract art and Chinese cultural concept. How do you think of this question?
Zhang: First, I’d like to talk about my art. I don’t think my art is abstract art in western theories. After all, the word “abstract” comes from the west. Before the word occurred, there were already Chinese traditional art, and Chinese didn’t use the word. The oriental thinking way is different from that of the west. The abstract of Chinese traditional art pursues a kind of imago, artistic conception, spiritual world and the release of emotion. It doesn’t distort on purpose, or change concrete things into abstract ones.
Luo: In the west, abstract is extracted from concrete, and at last nothing can be extracted, and that is Minimalism which nothing is left to.
Zhang: Yes. I think we shouldn’t refer to the western vocabulary when we talk about the so called abstract in ancient China. Because in the ancient times of China, abstract was a way to communicate when characters didn’t occur. Sure, today, people analyze them as certain creatures or something else. It is difficult to say, and I don’t think so. I just think that they used the language of lines to communicate with the nature and men. In the ancient times, it was quite possible for people to have concrete image worship. The primitive culture was a natural revelation. It didn’t mean to draw a concrete thing abstractly, nor did the calligraphy. Calligraphy itself is abstract, for example, the grass hand and the seal character. In western people’s eyes, they are abstract designs. But if you know the word, it changes from an abstract thing to a concrete thing. The greatness of Chinese characters lies in that it contracts concrete things in abstract forms. When people recognize it, it is a concrete symbol.
Luo: Simply speaking, that is a question of whether it is recognizable or unrecognizable. Take calligraphy as an example. Regular script, official script and seal character are recognizable, but grass hand is unrecognizable to most people. As for grass hand, if we analyze it with abstract theories, it has a process of coding. That is to say, the writer needs to know what he is writing about. The art including the lines and designs of ancient times that you just mentioned is a language used in communication. That is a public image. The public image needn’t be decoded by a certain individual. You know what I paint and I know what you paint. You don’t think your art is the abstract art of the west, why?
Zhang: Because in my works, there are these aspects: One is my starting point. I want to have a concept of time to communicate with the ancient and the future people. Another is that in life and Chinese traditional thoughts, there are concepts of heaven, earth and men. And one more aspect is that what I pursue is an artistic conception, not something can be expressed. The last is that there is something mysterious in my words. Even I myself cannot explain the elements in them. I’m looking for myself and my root though painting. Where do I come from? What do I come to this world for? Where do I go? Those are questions mentioned repeatedly in oriental thoughts, including the Buddhism which said “ Where to come, what to do, where to go”. I create from this point of view. I don’t want to paint something beautifully, or use a simple painting form, and generalize it with an abstract language. I don’t want to do that.
Luo: Can I understand it like this that because what you think about and express is philosophical, for example, where do men come from and the question of time, you have to express in a philosophical way. There is not any process of extraction from concrete images, so it is not abstract. For common visitors, they need to understand the significance of the works. For me, what impressed me first gave me was the form. And then, I thought why you painted in this way. When people ask why, do you leave the visitors thinking by themselves, or you have an answer in your paintings?
Zhang: Every of my paintings has a name which is like a key guiding the visitors to understand the paintings. For the visitors (accepters), because there are many Chinese traditional things, their understanding of the paintings depends on their knowledge about Chinese tradition. The reason for me to paint these things, for example, division of the roundness and squareness, is that there is a big concept in ancient China, that is “round heaven and square earth”. In our education, the heaven was said to be round, and the earth square. It was not so in Chinese traditional thoughts. “Difang” (square earth) is a location. “The east, south, west, north and center” and “four sides and eight directions” are both about location. I want to pose the big concept and form a kind of composition or mode of painting through simple language. The composition or mode that occurs in the background of my paintings convey my own feelings. For example, the group of diagrams of “Gold, wood, water, fire and soil” are in the forms of my own understanding. Chinese thoughts cover too much. According to Chinese thoughts, all creatures come from air, from the combination of the negative and the positive, from five elements. The five elements: gold, wood, water, fire and soil, contain everything no matter static or dynamic, material or spiritual. So I think my paintings are quite different from western abstract art. What I express are all the things which are static, dynamic, fading with the time, and with life. I express the relationship between me and the heaven and earth. That is something of air or mood. They are from one’s subconscious, and cannot be explained. Many things in our life cannot be explained. The western people believe what they can see. But in several thousand of years, the Chinese have been believing in something void that cannot be seen just because of their own experiences. My concept of art (though there are many definitions of art) is that art is a communicating process between soul and soul through works. I believe that in my works there is something invisible, that is soul, passing my body and be expressed by me. I am only a shape in the world.
Luo: The concept of soul also comes from the west. The corresponding word in ancient Chinese may be “heart”, but “heart” is not exactly soul.
Zhang: Yes. Maybe there is difference between Chinese “soul” and western “soul”. Actually, ancient Chinese said it as “Hunpo”.
Luo: Through the seeking for root, the tracing back of culture and the cultural system, you recognize yourself and the world again. Have you ever tried other means except painting? Such as, do you still practice calligraphy?
Zhang: Yes. Chinese traditional culture has melted into my life, including my clothes, food, accommodation, traveling, playing shadowboxing and practicing calligraphy. Where is the root? That is a question obsesses me these years. The answer is “quietness”. “The end of quietness is action, the end of negative is positive.” When one is most quiet, his mind would open. The “understanding” mentioned in Buddhism is also a process of quietness.
Luo: “Quietness” is a process of self-proof. That is a concept of Chinese traditional medicine. Take the veins and pulse and an example. Even if you cut the flesh and take out the bone, you cannot see the vein and pulse, but they do exist. Only through self-proof, can one prove that they exist. Self-proof has some relative practices, for example sitting cross-legged, to prove that the interior system really exists. The existence can only be felt though experience. Those who don’t have the experience can only accept it with confidence. Just now you mentioned that in the west people only believe what they have seen. But Chinese never see things like “Kua” and the negative and the positive, anyway, they believe them. Why do they believe it? I think it’s an interesting question.
Zhang: Yes. Modern people’s living style are quite different from the ancient Chinese tradition, so they won’t think that way. Now our society is developing fast in economy. That may be rare all over the world. The ancient Chinese thinker Confucius said, “More haste, less speed,” that is, the faster you do things, the more problems will occur. When I look back and see the doctrines passed down by ancient people, I found the five thousand words of Laozi cover everything, including people’s behavior criterions. Why after several thousand of years, few people care about these things? My creation is to explore the relationship between human being, the nature and the universe, and that between men and the climate.
[Ⅴ]The significance of the Mysterious Rhythm of Life
Luo: Except your practice of Chinese traditional culture, do you often use modern electronic tools, such as computer?
Zhang: I started to use computer in 1997. At that time, the system was WIN32. After coming to Yunnan, I got far and far away from electronic stuff. My understanding of art and life is that I should return to the relatively primary state of life. The labor of peasants in all four seasons is closer to the most primary agricultural state. I will try to explore more new things. I just start now. Now my works only opened a gate, there is still a long way ahead.
Luo: Do you cook at home?
Luo: You are living and working in peace and contentment, just as it showed in the works named “Living in Peace and Contentment ” and “Working in Peace and Contentment ”.
Zhang: Yes. I’m satisfied with both my life and my work. Child and family are the most important now. Just enjoy life. Why did I present the series of “Process”? I think modern people are pursuing something. Actually, they are pursuing something insignificant, material things like house and money. People’s desire is booming. When we spend our life and is leaving the world, and look back at what we have done in the life, we will find that we have been busy all the time. What is life? The modern people are busy with pursuing material satisfaction. Actually they are empty in heart, just like walking corpses. How terrible it is! So I melt my understanding of living and life in my paintings. In fact, this thought derived from my view point of death. Many people refuse to talk about death, and never think about it. But it is impossible not to think of it. When a man has the concept of death, he is getting into the mature stage of life. My father died when I just graduated from school and started to work at the age of 18. that was a great stimulate to me. And then, I realized that people may leave, and I have an understanding of life. I was too young at that time, and didn’t think profoundly. I just felt that no matter how old one is, he may leave the world. When thinking of this, I felt man should cherish life and enjoy it. When I just came to Yunnan, a good friend of mine died in his 30s. That is another shock to me. I started to rethink about the process from man’s birth, growth to death. At that time I started to think of using climate to express, and melt the concept of climate into my painting. The climate here is not about the twenty-four solar terms, but men’s twenty-four terms and four seasons of life. Men’s living, aging, sickness and death are the spring, summer, autumn, and winter of men’s life. After arriving Yunnan, I also started to think about peasants, and related men, climate and the nature. In several thousand of years, ancient Chinese people led a life of starting to work when the sun rose, and stopping work when the sun sank down. “Shoot in spring, grow in summer, harvest in autumn and store in winter.” Peasants’ life is in harmony with the nature. After harvesting in autumn, people stored crops in winter, and started to drink and play and passed a quiet winter. They needn’t do anything in the winter. Because in winter, people are not energetic, they need to accumulate until the spring comes. (Luo: Yes. It is so in Chinese traditional medicine.) Yes, it is so in Chinese traditional medicine. Chinese culture like Taiji, the game of go, calligraphy, diet, inhabitation and life all melted together. Actually, it is a system. Look at modern urban people’s life. They don’t have spare time, let alone the four seasons.
Luo: Today, everybody is busy and the speed of life is accelerating. So the globe becomes warmer and there is no longer seasons.
Zhang: Yes, that’s true. When I was in Beijing, I was very busy. After I came to Yunnan, I lived quietly, and didn’t feel lonely. I just calmed down, just like the spots in my works. They were filled in the blanks without any thinking. There were many of them. They made it like a process of practice, in which you keep painting spots one by one everyday.
Luo: So many actions of your drawing were unconscious and aimless. They were just repetition. That is a characteristic of contemporary Chinese painting. Gao Minglu named it as “Mostism”, repeating certain actions which are very daily not for a work. Maybe he often press a fingerprint or fill a grille. He do one things repeatedly all day long. This has something to do with an oriental concept of “meditation”.
Zhang: My works have some differences from that. Before the practice of form, there is an impulsive and moody thing. The painted spots after drawing the lines are only decoration. So my works are comprehensive. There are many things in them. Because I graduated from College for Nationalities, I like things of minorities, including something of Tibet Buddhism. But I have no religionary belief myself. I may absorb something about life from religion. I name the theme of my creation as “Mysterious Rhythm”, because I don’t want to categorize it into abstract art. I think my art is different from western abstract art, and even some so called abstract art in today’s China. I think my starting point, process of action, and the spiritual world that I pursue are different from theirs, so I name my art as “Mysterious Rhythm”. Simply speaking, it is a mysterious rhythm. What my art pursues is things which are static, dynamic, negative, positive, having temperature, smell and feeling. There is something that needn’t express in words. I believe there must be something unspeakable in painting which is another language, just as music is.
Luo: I found that in your “Series of Process”, each year of 2005, 2006, 2007 is corresponding with a series, namely, Process No. 1, Process No. 2, Process No. 3. Do you have a new plan for 2008?
Zhang: In 2008, it is “Process No. 4”, and 2009, “Process No. 5”. There may be some subtle changes in my language, content and skill. They are all from the nutrition I absorb in usual improvisational small paintings. At the end of each series, there is thinking about the following series. That is miserable, because I don’t want to repeat.
Luo: Then, do you have any rough idea about your idea, theme and elements of your next year’s creation?
Zhang: I’m still thinking of analyzing some content of “Process No. 1”, because in “Process No. 1”, some elements were put together in one painting. I will subdivide them. I’m still not clear about what to do next year, because the winter just comes, hehe.
Luo: So now it’s the sleeping period.
Zhang: Yes. I do little creation in winter. I just read and think, and do some small paintings. Many elements are absorbed from the folk. Take folk music as an example. Some northwest drama and films are influenced by it. If I still cannot get inspiration after the accumulation, I will go to the countryside to collect some materials. Actually it is to live for a while among the minorities, play for several days and drink wine and get close to the nature. If one go to a simple place where the air is fresh and the water is clear, he must can create something.