Zeng’s “Mask Series 1998 No.26″ Recently Sold For US$2.6 Million, Highest At Ullens Auction
This week, CNN interviews Zeng Fanzhi, arguably China’s top living contemporary artist. Coming off strong spring and autumn auction seasons in 2011, and with his “Mask Series 1998 No.26″ selling for US$2.6 million at the recent Ullens auction at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, Zeng’s draw among international and new Chinese collectors alike has been confirmed. Even with mainland Chinese collectors becoming more discriminating and increasingly passing up mid-range works at recent auctions, Zeng, perhaps China’s most sought-after blue-chip artist save for Zhang Xiaogang, has remained virtually unscathed. As a recognized blue-chip artist — championed internationally by the likes of Francois Pinault and domestically by super-collectors like Liu Yiqian — Zeng is often the first choice for new collectors looking for more reliable investments.
As Taiwanese collector Jeffery Yu recently observed, “Chinese property isn’t doing well, nor are stocks so [new collectors] are still putting money into the best [Chinese] art.”
KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR (voiceover): Tucked away in suburban Beijing lies this airy artist’s studio. But it’s no ordinary one. This is where some of China’s most expensive artwork is created. And this is the man behind it. Zeng Fanzhi. Regarded as one of the country’s most successful contemporary artists, he won international acclaim when this piece sold for a record-breaking $9.7 million in 2008 – more than 6,000 times what he originally sold it for 20 years earlier.
A regular at exhibitions from London to Sofia and closer to home in Shanghai, he’s also become a hot ticket at international auctions, including this recent one in Hong Kong where one of his works fetched a cool $3.5 million.
And, while his style is undoubtedly distinct, he is not afraid of change. From his arresting hospital scenes to chaotic depictions of nature, he’s now even turned his hand at immortalizing his artistic idols in portraiture.
This week on “Talk Asia”, we meet Zeng Fanzhi in Hong Kong at his first exhibition with the Gagosian, to get a closer look at his latest works. Plus, we find out what keeps him current in China’s competitive contemporary art scene.
STOUT: Zeng Fanzhi, welcome to “Talk Asia”. Now, this is your latest exhibition in Hong Kong. It’s also your first at the Gagosian. I understand that you were the first Chinese artist ever to be exhibited by the Gagosian. So, when you look at your works here, how do you feel?
ZENG FANZHI, ARTIST (through translator): This is actually my fourth exhibition in Hong Kong, but it’s a bit different from previous times. Because this exhibition features my pieces from 1999 to 2011. So, it’s like a summary of all my artwork.
STOUT: You are one of the most successful and respected artists in China. In fact, at one point, you broke the record for the most expensive piece of Chinese contemporary art ever to be sold at auction. So, how does that make you feel, knowing that your art is so highly valued?
FANZHI (through translator): At that time, auctions were quite new to us. We began to participate in auctions about 2005. That’s approximately when people started to auction my pieces. I felt quite strange at the time, but gradually became more used to it, since it’s rather normal to have your pieces bid on in the market. So, I became more familiar with auctions over time.
As people became more interested and enthusiastic about art and the booming Chinese economy, the prices of the art pieces got higher and higher. The development process is something that we, as artists, had never anticipated.
STOUT: Now, “Mask No. 6, 1996″ sold at a record price for the time, $9.7 million. When that took place, were you ready for that level of recognition and wealth?
FANZHI (through translator): That was an auction in the spring of 2008. I remember it vividly. I did not anticipate the price at all. It was sold for almost double of what I expected. At that time, many friends called to congratulate me, but I also received many calls from people who questioned whether we actually manipulated the price. I received many calls from friends. Some to congratulate and some who were doubting. But, of course, I understood that the high price was such a surprise and we had no means to control the auction. That was purely market movement, because many people were bidding for the piece.
I personally thought that the price was incredible, because we originally sold the painting for just $16 thousand in 1988. Such an incredible price.
STOUT: Now, it must have hurt that people were accusing you of somehow manipulating the price.
FANZHI (through translator): Yes. When I received calls from friends after the auction, I felt happy, but also worried. Very conflicted. At first, I was extremely happy, but after a few days, there were voices questioning how come the painting sold for such a high price? And they would say the price was higher than that paid for art from ancient artists.
Because, as an artist, I don’t want to become a topic of discussion in the public. I always worried that I would become such a topic. But there were many people chasing me every day, questioning why the painting sold for such a high price. Many friends would ask me, but I just couldn’t explain. I was a bit daunted by all the attention, because I just wanted to close my doors and focus on creating.
STOUT: The painting, it depicts a group of people, they look like young people, and they’re wearing masks, and the red scarves. Who are they and what do they want?
FANZHI (through translator): The piece depicts a group of people hugging each other and wearing red scarves. Because red scarves are a part of our memories. Since all of us wore a red scarf back in the 1970s. My pieces usually depict myself as well as my memories and emotions. The group of people hugging together and all smiling and the background colors are similar to a performance stage. It’s a very surreal feeling. Because my “Mask” series reflects how we conceal our true emotions.
STOUT: Art buyers from all over the world have collected your work. Art buyers in China, from the West — why does your art have such a global appeal and resonance?
FANZHI (through translator): I think partly because I express my true, genuine emotions in my art pieces and partly because I’m constantly on the lookout for a dialogue between the East and West. I combine the essence of expression from both Western and Eastern values to create pieces that everyone can understand and accept. Focus on people, focus on society, and focus on the heart. I think it’s important to make sure the audience understands your work. This is a visual language. I don’t want to rely on more words to explain the pieces. I hope that people can understand what I’m trying to express simply by looking at my work.
STOUT: Are more and more Chinese collectors buying your work?
FANZHI (through translator): That’s right. Many collectors from Europe, the U.S. and other parts of Asia have collected my earlier pieces. But, since 2000, more Chinese people have started to collect my work. And, right now, the ratio of Chinese collectors for my pieces increases every day.
STOUT: Some say the Chinese art market is a bubble and it’s a bubble that could burst soon. How do you respond to that?
FANZHI (through translator): People have been saying this for quite some time. Since 2006 or 2007. Especially during the financial crisis. People started to talk about this. But the bubble hasn’t burst yet. Instead, the art market is still on the rise. Notably, in 2009 and more so in 2011.
I believe that’s related to China’s booming economy. Of course, there’s a bubble, but there are decent art collectors. And, as an artist, I hope the entire art market is in a stable state. I don’t wish to see a big rise and fall. Personally, I have high confidence in the future of the art market.
STOUT (through translator): Your new collection is the “Artist” series. Please introduce it to us.
FANZHI (through translator): I’ve continued to create portrait paintings since the beginning. And I recently chose to create a series of portraits related to artists. For this collection, I chose my favorite artists, such as Freud, Picasso, and Bacon. They are all among my personal favorites and they are all extremely talented artists, who have rich and complex spiritual expressions.
When I was painting their portraits, I also instilled my own understanding and feeling towards them into my work. For example, this portrait of Freud – his expression is very peaceful. And with the animal, the combination of peace and motion – this can give people a feeling of – it’s difficult to express with words.
STOUT (through translator): He has recently passed away, so when did you paint this?
FANZHI (through translator): I completed this painting around July of this year. Freud passed away a few weeks after I finished the piece.
STOUT (through translator): This painting depicts Picasso in his 50s. Please explain the painting to us.
FANZHI (through translator): Picasso was another artist who I admire very much. He was extremely creative and he constantly changed his styles to create new pieces. I think, as an artist, this is truly admirable.
STOUT (through translator): He is one of your idols?
FANZHI (through translator): You could say that he’s one of my idols. When I paint artists like him, I have dialogue and communication with them as well.
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STOUT: Now, let’s go back to the beginning. You were born in Wuhan during the Cultural Revolution, which was a very tumultuous time in Chinese history. What are your earliest memories?
FANZHI (through translator): I entered into my teenage years toward the end of the Cultural Revolution. My most vivid memory of that time was the street demonstrations. Whenever there were major events or activities, almost everyone would go to the street to demonstrate and shout out slogans. I remember this quite clearly. I was very young then, so I’d run around in the crowd and follow the adults to shout the slogans.
STOUT: And at what point did you decide to study fine arts and to become an artist?
FANZHI (through translator): I actually started to study art before I was 16. When I turned 16, two people influenced me the most. One was my mother. And another was my friend, who I met when I was about 16. He was 10 years my senior and he had a huge impact on me. I guess he could be referred to as my ‘painting buddy’. He influenced me greatly, because he taught me how to paint. And we were also very good friends. Also, a very important milestone in my life was when I entered into the academy of fine arts to study systematically. I believe that this was a significant turning point in my life.
STOUT: You speak of your mother’s influence. Did she have an artistic streak?
FANZHI (through translator): My mother did not have an artistic streak. She was an ordinary worker. But she would always nurture me to recognize, appreciate, and experience beauty. For example, she would take me to visit Hangzhou. I believe all of these were essential to my development.
STOUT: Now, your graduation work was the “Hospital Triptych”. And it was picked up by a Hong Kong gallerist right away. We’re seeing the “Hospital Series” right behind you. Tell me about this body of work.
FANZHI (through translator): This series was a conclusion to my university studies. Everyone had to submit a graduation piece as the milestone to your entrance into society. So, I decided to paint the “Hospital Triptych Series”. Since the beginning of my university days, I’d always sought for a way to express my true inner feelings. So, for all my work, the painting process is rather natural.
I follow my instincts to express and also follow my perceptions of the world around me. My university encouraged students to go to the countryside, to experience life and paint related work or landscape pieces. That was fairly normal at university. But I chose to paint what touched me the most in my life at that moment. The hospital. And, at that time, Mr. Tseng (ph) from a Hong Kong gallery liked my work and he wanted to introduce my pieces into an exhibition.
For me, that was a very important moment, because the first collector is always a confirmation and a major source of encouragement for any artist. I needed that confirmation to continue my journey into the art world.
STOUT: And you got that confirmation. Zeng Fanzhi, if you could turn around and just describe the work behind you.
FANZHI (through translator): I actually went to the hospital to photograph this scene. Usually, hospitals never allow non-medical staff to enter. But I had a relative who worked in the hospital and told me to dress in a doctor’s attire and go through the sanitization process. I told them that I really wanted to witness what goes on in the surgery room. Because I’ve never seen the process anywhere.
Then, he took me inside and I brought a camera to take pictures. I had to explain to everyone that these pictures would only be used as a reference so I could create art pieces related to hospitals. So, I started to take pictures. That was back in 1991. I took pictures of the doctors giving the patient anesthesia and starting the surgery. So, that was the process I personally recorded to use as a reference.
STOUT: Do you fear that your artwork can turn into cliche? And is that the reason why you change your style so dramatically?
FANZHI (through translator): You’re very correct. Since the beginning of my “Mask” series or even before then, when I painted the “Hospital” series, I avoided feeling too familiar and tried to keep myself feeling fresh and strange. When I say “strange”, I meant that I tried to feel unfamiliar when creating art, because I believe that when the process becomes too familiar, the painting would be too stylized and formulaic.
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STOUT: Coming up, Zeng Fanzhi shows us around his self-designed Beijing studio and tells us why an accident forced him to take up a new, unusual method of painting.
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FANZHI (through translator): I usually do most of my work at this spot, at this corner. Because I like how the natural light from the sky shines on this space. It’s a very stable and tranquil natural light. So, I usually paint at this spot. And all of these are my painting tools for creating art pieces.
This piece is what I painted for an exhibition at the Bund in Shanghai last year. It’s also the largest painting I’ve completed. It’s approximately 10 meters wide. When you look at the painting, you’d probably think that this is a landscape image or an abstract image. But I hope to express a combination of the two feelings. I hope to express the scenery within the mind. A very subjective feeling. That’s why the painting depicts many complicated lines and shapes intertwined together.
My paintings usually have a side that’s rather sad, conflicted, worried, and fragile. For example, the image here also provokes similar feelings within viewers. There’s a power of tragedy within. I don’t particularly like to paint cheerful scenes because those seem too superficial. I prefer to paint deeper and more internal scenes that can touch people.
This is an image of a landscape. The empty space around is for your own imagination. I don’t intend to make it very clear. I don’t really need to paint anything in particular, but I want to make people feel. To achieve meaning without really painting.
STOUT: Now, let’s talk about your process, which has changed recently. Sometimes you use two hands to paint, sometimes, with four brushes. What does that allow you to do?
FANZHI (through translator): This actually began as an accident. I injured my right hand in 2004, so I trained myself to paint with my left hand. Although I could paint with both hands, I normally use my right hand and paint with two brushes. I guess this process could be a skill, because when I paint with two brushes in one hand, I hope the second brush could constantly destroy the lines created by the first brush.
I discovered this method by accident, but I thought it was very interesting. So, I continued to paint like this. One brush to create and another one to destroy. The resultant lines in the painting are extremely complex and embody many unexpected chances and coincidences. I’ve always believed that these chances in a painting make the image unique.
STOUT: You’ve also made a foray into sculpture. For example, “Mammoth Tusks” and other works. Why move into sculpture?
FANZHI (through translator): I had wanted to create sculptures and do engravings ever since the early 1990s. But I didn’t have suitable conditions back then. In 2000, that changed. And I had the ability to explore these mediums. And so, I started to reconsider. My first sculpture piece was influenced by the essence of traditional Chinese culture. I created a bronze sculpture. The piece reflected traditional Chinese art as well. So, my first sculpture piece was related to traditional Chinese values. And I also hoped that it could embody the cultural essence from both the East and the West.
STOUT: You’re so big and you’re so famous. How do you block out the distractions, keep your feet on the ground, and focus on your work?
FANZHI (through translator): I put a lot of effort into managing my time. I spend quite a bit of time alone in my studio. And I make sure I have a period of quiet time every day. I don’t always have to be doing anything. I could just be thinking about nothing. But it makes me feel very peaceful within. I need this quiet time every day so I can maintain a comfortable state to create art. I need to be very calm and I cannot work when I am distracted or interrupted. I need a quiet environment to create, so I manage my time well. I usually take care of admin or guest-related tasks in the morning, but I usually spend the afternoon alone in my studio.
STOUT: What plans do you have for the future and what themes do you want to explore next?
FANZHI (through translator): Currently, I try to explore new elements from traditional Chinese values. Of course, I’m trying to combine the cultural essence of both the East and the West. But where is the point of convergence? This is something I’m exploring right now. In the next few years, I will definitely create more paintings related to traditional Chinese values. I cannot explain too clearly, right now, because I’m still in the process of exploring. But it will definitely be related to traditional Chinese values. This is the new direction I’m discovering right now.
STOUT: Zeng Fanzhi, thank you for joining us.